Friday 13 June 2014

Kings Consort and Carolyn Sampson in Britten's Les Illuminations

Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson
Britten Les Illuminations Finzi Dies Natalis; Carolyn Sampson, The King's Consort, Robert King; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 11 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Brilliant re-creation of the original 1940's sound for Britten and Finzi

Tuesday 11 June's concert at the Wigmore Hall celebrated the premieres in 1940 of Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis (at the Wigmore Hall) and Britten's Les Illuminations (at the nearby Aeolian Hall, now Sotheby's). What gave Tuesday's performance piquancy was that the performers were the period instrument group The King's Consort, conducted by Robert King, with soprano Carolyn Sampson. The programme was completed by a pair of 18th century works, Corelli's Concerto Grosso in D, Op.6 No.1 and Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in E minor, Op.3 No.3.

Both Britten's Les Illuminations and Finzi's Dies Natalis are generally associated with tenor soloists; the Britten with Peter Pears, the Finzi with Wilfred Brown who made an influential recording of it. But both works were premiered by sopranos, Sophie Wyss performed Les Illuminations and Elsie Suddaby Dies Natalis.

The King's Consort played all the music on correct instruments of the period; 18th century for Corelli and Geminiani, 1940's for Britten and Finzi. This entailed changing bows and instruments, but for the 1940's they were still using gut strings. In a short spoken introduction Robert King explained that this period was the last time when gut strings were commonplace. The war caused a shortage of gut ('we ate it all'!), and metal strings became the norm.

The ensemble started with Concerto Grosso no. 1 from Corelli's hugely influential opus 6 set. The stately opening allowed the group to display a rich depth to their sound. Subsequent movements alternated fast brilliance with slower elegance, with some fine solo playing.

Carolyn Sampson was the soloist in Britten's Les Illuminations, his 1939 setting of texts by Artur Rimbaud. Playing on gut strings with somewhat less vibrato than modern performances, the ensemble made less edgy, more transparent sound which brought out the stunning textures of Britten's writing. In the first movement, Fanfare, Sampson was vibrantly focused with a remarkable depth of tone, which came as a pleasant surprise having heard her in mainly baroque music. In Villes King's lively speed meant the movement came as something of a tour de force, with a lovely accuracy and warmth from Sampson, and some brilliantly varied string writing.

The harmonics in Phrase sounded magical and we had a beautifully floated line from Sampson. Antique was an infectious dance with a lively contrast between Sampson's line and the string textures. Royaute was highly characterful, here as elsewhere Sampson was impressive in the clarity of her French. Marine saw Sampson combining brilliance and accuracy in a highly appealing performance, with a lovely swing to the ensemble. The end of the movement was perfectly thrilling.

In Interlude the richly characterful ensemble had a good clarity of detail and Sampson floated phrases over. The magical throbbing of the strings in Being Beauteous introduced Sampson's lovely spun line. As the accompaniment got darker, there was a lot of character and detail in the playing. Parade was simply gripping and finally Depart saw Sampson luxuriantly langorous. And I loved the sound of the lower strings at the end.

Modern recreations of past performance styles can sometimes come over as a little careful, but here Sampson, King and the King's Consort gave us a brilliantly vivid performance alert to all the lovely detail in Britten's score. The use of gut strings meant we could hear the brilliance of Britten's writing with striking clarity. And Sampson not only gave us a superbly vibrant performance, but she seemed to effortlessly float the high passages and impressed with the depth and power of her sound, as well us giving us some strongly characterised text. I do hope that a way is found for Sampson and the group to record this work.

Geminiani was a pupil of Corelli, who ended in London, both playing and teaching; her performed with Handel and wrote an influential teaching manual. His Concerto Grosso in E minor was in four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast. It started accented and dramatic, before the second movement introduced a lovely busy texture with quirkily chromatic movements. The third movement had a lovely violin melody and richly scored accompaniment. The final movement saw some brilliant scurrying from the solo, and strong interruptions from the tutti.

Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis sets texts by the 17th century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, and Finzi's selection of texts gives us a vision of a child's innocent perception of the world. The instrumental opening movement, Intrada was richly textured with some lovely inner parts, the playing combining warmth and clarity with singing tone. In Rhapsody the strong accompaniment, with a vivid line from the violins counterpointed Sampson's lyric rapture. She brought a lovely focus to the line, plus a real sense of joy and wonder. Though I have to admit that I did not find her English diction anywhere near as vivid as her French had been.

The Rapture had a vividly vigorous and crisp accompaniment, with King and his group capturing the work's constantly changing metre and scoring. Finzi's use of divide strings at times gave a particular richness to the sound. There was a lovely freedom to Sampson's performance, particularly her upper register.  In Wonder the strings were hushed and muted but still character, with Sampson singing with lovely poise. What delighted was the amount of detail it was possible to hear in the performance. In the final movement The Salutation the rather sombre solo line has a lovely string wandering round it.

Both the Finzi and the Britten were revelations in terms of the sound quality of an ensemble on gut strings. But far more than that, these were simply superb performances on any terms, capturing the brilliance of Britten's work and inward rapture of Finzi's.

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  1. Dear Mr Hugill,
    Spot-on! This was a wonderful account of the two song cycles, and the timbre of Carolyn Sampson and of the King's Consort were ideal. I love both works, and I had been brought up on the tenor norm for the Finzi. After hearing this account, I am completely convinced that the soprano is the ideal voice for Dies Natalis, and that gut strings make an important difference too, and that these artists are the ones to reveal that, despite many loved and valued tenor renderings. It was a very compelling evening altogether. Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough review (although Ms Sampson's English was just as clear to me as her excellent French, from my seat in row Q !). AJP

  2. Glad to hear you enjoyed it as much as I did, and pleased that Sampson' English diction was OK for you. I must say that I do hope we might get to hear the works on disc, I would love to be able to listen again.


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