Britten: Les illuminations; Our Hunting Fathers; Quatre chansons françaises

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ALBUM TITLE: Orchestral Song-Cycles, Vol. 1
WORKS: Les illuminations; Our Hunting Fathers; Quatre chansons françaises
PERFORMER: Felicity Lott, Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano); ECO/Steuart Bedford
CATALOGUE NO: 8.557206
That the young Benjamin Britten was phenomenally precocious is known well enough nowadays. Even so it still brings one up short to think that all three of these pieces were composed before Britten turned 26. In terms of technical and imaginative daring, his inspiration in these burns at a very high level, especially in Our Hunting Fathers and Les illuminations – higher, perhaps, than in many of the more drily contrived works of Britten’s last years. As for Quatre chansons françaises (written when Britten was just 15), it’s easy to tell who his models were – Debussy and Ravel are the cycle’s musical parents – and yet the music sounds so mature, not at all derivative in spirit. Felicity Lott sings the Quatre chansons with typical seductive beauty of tone and expression; as interpretation this is the outstanding item on the disc. The other two performances can be impressive, too, and they’re all superbly recorded. But Phyllis Bryn-Julson rarely gets as deep into the emotional fabric of Our Hunting Fathers as Ian Bostridge on EMI. And lovely as Lott is in Les illuminations, she has less to tell us than Peter Pears with the composer conducting on Decca – vocally rather less lovely, but with an unsurpassed way of making key words and musical phrases tell. With Britten the exquisite often masks underlying pain, but in Les illuminations in particular there’s too much of the mask here and not enough of the uncomfortable truth. Stephen Johnson