This concert in the ‘Before and After’ series, held on the 30th anniversary of Britten’s death, was another finely balanced affair, beginning with the setting for viola and strings of Lachrimae, in a searing performance by Lawrence Power and the Nash Ensemble, where Dowland’s lament ‘If my complaints could passions move’ seemed even more poignant than usual. The viola was Britten’s own instrument, as it was with Mozart, and there is a special intimacy with the musical line in the work, strongly evident in such a deeply felt interpretation.
Les Illuminations was first performed in its entirety by the soprano Sophie Wyss in 1940, so it was appropriate that on this significant day we should hear it by another soprano, Sandrine Piau. Ms Piau is well known as a specialist in the baroque repertoire, where her steely, fresh, clean voice is much admired. The only problem with a very light-voiced soloist is that with a forceful instrumental ensemble – and the Nash could never be called anything else – there is a tendency towards loss of emphasis on the soloist, especially in the more dense sections such as ‘Parade.’ Piau sang beautifully, but for my ears her tone and phrasing lacked the sensuality which pours from Rimbaud’s poetry – her diction and passionate commitment were however beyond reproach.
No lack of sensuality in the singing of John Mark Ainsley, the soloist in the ‘Serenade,’ although there were times when his in-demand status as a Britten interpreter in this commemorative season seemed to have taken its toll, with less than perfect approach to some notes. Nevertheless, ‘Elegy’ was a master study in word pointing, ‘Dirge’ fervently dramatic and ‘Sonnet’ shaped Keats’ lines with eloquence. Richard Watkins provided superbly sonorous, foreboding tone throughout, the horn as it should be a second poetic voice.This mini-festival of Britten, the start of year-long tributes, continues with a performance of his choral works, including the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, by The Cardinall’s Music on December 14th.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org