Britten at the Proms – Les illuminations

Ian Bostridge
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Sir Colin Davis received a full Prom in his honour from the London Symphony Orchestra and their principal guest conductor Daniel Harding on Tuesday 20th August – and quite naturally the music of Britten was involved. Sir Colin did much to further Britten’s cause, with fine early recordings of Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he worked on the composer’s music on many an occasion with the tenor Ian Bostridge, who sang Les illuminations for this concert.

Bostridge is one of the foremost Britten interpreters around today, and every performance he gives of the composer’s music has a ‘must hear’ quality about it. This was no exception, an emotionally and erotically charged reading of Britten’s Rimbaud settings that surely have raised the temperature in the Royal Albert Hall!

The first, immediately notable quality to his performance was a deliberate flattening of the tone in the motto statement of Les illuminations, ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (‘I alone hold the key to this savage parade’). It blurred the distinction between major and minor key, and was a very powerful moment, especially with the tempo slightly slower than that which we normally hear.

A trembling Parade, with some of the words spat out, was incredibly expressive, as were the colourful effects secured on the strings by Harding at the start of Phrase, which also included very specific use of vibrato from Bostridge and a really heavenly top B flat. The strings had a real heft at the start of Rouyaté, and a translucent quality to Marine, with Bostridge fully in control. Meanwhile Being beauteous was most intense of all, the high notes especially concentrated.

It is gratifying this year to see the music of Britten’s friend and contemporary Sir Michael Tippett given time to express itself properly in the Proms, and especially appropriate here as Sir Colin Davis was a staunch champion of his music, conducting the world premieres of The Knot Garden, the Triple Concerto, The Ice Break, The Mask of Time and The Rose Lake. Tippett said of him that “Colin has an instinctive understanding of what I want without our ever having discussed it. I just feel that as far as interpreting my music is concerned, he’s the tops.”

We started with the bright, clarion calls of the Fanfare no.5 from The Mask of Time before an understated but beautifully voiced performance of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra reached its emotional height in a lovely slow movement. Here the sweetness was slightly shy, and very profound, with beautiful and affectionate playing from the strings, especially the cello soloist. The fast music was similarly understated, as if it had wisps of music over it, but when the last movement’s folk song quotation came into play the extra depth of emotion was revealed once again.

Finally the music of Elgar, also close to Sir Colin’s heart, and a performance given of the Symphony no.2 that was good spirited and out in the open air. There was a surprisingly graceful poise to much of Daniel Harding’s interpretation in the first movement, and it spread through to the start of the Funeral March, which Sir Colin himself may well have enjoyed. Here a solemn sense of memorial was countered by the relative lightness of texture.

That’s not to say we didn’t have our weightier moments, for as the Funeral March progressed there was a searing line from the first violins and full blooded support from the rest of the orchestra, Harding probed deeply when needed, while the Scherzo hit some crushing but accurate blows too. The finale was very strong indeed, affirmative but with that slightly tender underside that came through at the end, suggesting this as a very fitting interpretation to mark the passing of one of the greatest British conductors of the 20th – and 21st – centuries.

You can listen to Ian Bostridge and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding, performing Les illuminations on the BBC iPlayer. The concert includes the Tippett and Elgar works mentioned above.

A full obituary of Sir Colin Davis can be read on the Guardian website here

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