Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations has become so closely associated with Peter Pears it’s often assumed that it was tailored for the tenor voice.
It was actually written for the soprano Sophie Wyss, for whom Britten wrote his earlier Our Hunting Fathers. So it was refreshing, and authentic, to hear it sung by the young English soprano Stephanie Corley.
A splendid performance it was too, one which clearly conveyed the songs’ wide range of emotions expressed in Rimbaud’s free-form and sometimes surreal verses, both the rapturous eroticism of Being Beauteous and the quiet resignation of the final departure: “Seen enough. Had enough. Known enough.”
Corley’s is a lyric soprano but she possesses the flexibility and power for the testing demands of the work. She was ably supported by the BPO, under Michael Lloyd. They coped admirably with the music’s mercurial mood swings from pulsing motoric rhythms to gentle melancholy and Berlioz-style romanticism.
Two great works for strings by English composers completed the first half of the concert. The austere modal harmonies of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia were written for a church acoustic but, with the secondary string group on a raised platform behind the orchestra, the piece’s crucial echo effects and melodic interplay worked admirably.
The larghetto of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was as tender and yearning as one could wish but the final allegretto lacked zip and zest.
The BPO saved the best until last – a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings so warm and romantic that it could have melted the frost outside.