LABELS: Carlton BBC Radio Classics
WORKS: Les illuminations; Our Hunting Fathers; Quatre chansons françaises; Berceuse
PERFORMER: Heather Harper (soprano); RPO/ Charles Groves, BBC PO/Edward Downes, English CO/Steuart Bedford
CATALOGUE NO: 15656 91582 ADD
As the famous last-minute replacement for a visa-less Galina Vishnevskaya at the premiere of the War Requiem, the creator of Mrs Coyle in Owen Wingrave, an acclaimed Ellen Orford and an Aldeburgh favourite of the composer’s since her first appearance there in 1956, Heather Harper’s Britten credentials are impeccable. And it’s good that these stylish and sympathetic interpretations of the two early, pre-Pears orchestral song cycles, written for Sophie Wyss, and the even earlier Four French Songs, have been conveniently collected together on one disc.
But they are not ideal, partly because – apart from the ECO under Bedford – the orchestral contributions are routine, but primarily because Harper’s voice – at this late stage in her career – can’t help but sound too effortful for music of such dazzling, youthful invention. The 1986 studio recording of Our Hunting Fathers finds her portentous and less than nimble in the demanding passagework of ‘Rats away!’ and ‘Dance of death’; but at least there’s none of that ‘dry, cocktail cleverness’ that Edmund Rubbra discerned in the work. Caught live at the Festival Hall some eight years later, Les illuminations proves a more successful matching of vocal means to artistic ends and, given more imaginative participation from Groves and the RPO, might have been as recommendable a version as any. Antony Bye