Britten: Les Illuminations

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Channel Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Britten: Les Illuminations
WORKS: Les Illuminations; Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
PERFORMER: Barbara Hannigan (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Jasper de Waal (horn); AmsterdamSingonietta/Candida Thompson


On the evidence of this recording, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta is a smallish string orchestra of exemplary discipline, capable under its artistic director, Candida Thompson, of a wide range of expression. These qualities are in play in their vividly characterised account of Britten’s youthful Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, lacking only in the weight of sonority that larger string ensembles can bring to the score.

In Les illuminations, which Britten originally composed for the soprano Sophie Wyss, Barbara Hannigan brings a fined-down intensity to the more hushed Rimbaud settings, such as ‘Being Beauteous’, but elsewhere her tone tends to flutter under pressure. She cannot quite rival the command, character or exemplary French diction of Sandrine Piau’s account with the Northern Sinfonia on NMC (D140) – a release that also includes Colin Matthews’s recension of three further Rimbaud settings, which Britten sketched but excluded from the cycle.

James Gilchrist, by contrast, sounds at home in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the additional Tennyson setting Britten sketched, and while his slightly reedy timbre sounds very different to Peter Pears, he brings his own equally valid insights into this iconic cycle. My reservation here concerns horn soloist Jasper de Waal’s slight vibrato, and his prosaic way of rounding off phrases. Perhaps a more spacious acoustic would have helped.


Bayan Northcott