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Being Beauteous - Komsi / Kangas / Oramo

Being Beauteous - Komsi / Kangas / Oramo

Alba Records  ABCD 331

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Benjamin Britten: Les Illuminations Op. 18, Hans Werner Henze: Being Beauteous, Arnold Schoenberg: Herzgewächse (Foliage of the Heart) Op. 20, Niccolo Castiglioni: Terzina, Karol Szymanowski: Slopiewnie (The Cherry Trees) Op. 46b

Anu Komsi (soprano)

Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra
Juha Kangas (conductor)

Uusinta Chamber Ensemble
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - October 3, 2012

Here is a programme of post-Mahler songs, accompanied by string orchestra or chamber ensemble, which is both intriguing and inventive. Only Britten's brilliantly eclectic 'Les Illuminations' makes a regular appearance on records and concert platforms, and it is centre-stage on this disc. Finnish soprano Anu Komsi has deeply considered the relationship of the songs which she has chosen, some having a personal meaning for her and her career. She sings them with with appealing candour, using her sweet, virtuosic and powerfully dynamic coloratura voice. Accompanying are the now very familiar Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, guided by their founder and conductor Juha Kanga, and the Uusinta Chamber Ensemble, whose flexible instrumentarium is directed by Sakari Oramo (himself becoming conductor of the OCO in 2013).

Begun in Suffolk, Les Illuminations was completed in 1939 after Britten and Pears settled in Canada, as pacifists having vacated the ominously developing theatre of war. Britten was looking for a text in French to set for the soprano Sophie Wyss, and came across the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), a French Symbolist. Written when Rimbaud was barely nineteen, the verses of Les Illuminations are a young man's vision of new frontiers. So it was, too, for Britten when he set it, compelled to break away from his"Britishness". Britten also continued his imaginative exploitation of string orchestra sonorities, begun in the Frank Bridge Variations, with these exhilarating songs, a challenge readily taken up by the OCO and Kanga.

The poet's term "Illuminations" refers to coloured illustrations, and Britten treated them as such when he selected 10 poems from the 42 which are generally thought to belong to Rimbaud's suit. Britten's song cycle leads the listener into a world of Rimbaud's "savage" parades, using a flamboyant, flexible vocal line as his clear response to the sound of the French language, and intuitively reflecting the extravagant but often opaque imagery of Rimbaud's verse. This cycle was written for high voice, and so not only intended for sopranos, but also for tenors; indeed Britten first performed the piece with Peter Pears as early as 1941. In recent years, recordings seem to have mainly featured tenors, so Komsi's reading is most welcome for its spontaneity and lack of "Britishness", in comparison, say, with Felicity Lott's classic version.

Britten launches the song cycle with a Fanfare, to which the soloist responds with the statement "I have the sole key to this savage parade" which is repeated elsewhere as an interpolation. Lott is merely proud; Komsi not only completely authoritative but also defiant. In general, Lott follows Britten's insistence that singers of his music always sing beautifully, whereas Komsi gives full rein to her operatic experience, acting with her voice and drawing out drama by exploiting word painting at every opportunity. In her bustling and imaginative portrayal of 'Villes' (Towns) she changes her vocal timbre several times, even producing a child's voice, greatly adding to the colour and vitality of the song. 'Phrase' is about celebration and dancing, and here Komsi makes a breath-taking slow ascent to a high B flat at 'et je danse', from which she finesses in pianissmo a radiant downward glissando with supreme control.

'Antiques' had a private meaning for Britten, as a dedication to the portrait of a young man whom he had a relationship with before leaving the UK. Komsi combines adoration with self-disbelief, decorated with luminous coloratura flashes, while Lott is merely doe-eyed and girlish. The titular 'Being Beautiful', dedicated to Peter Pears, takes 5'05 to the Britten/Pears time of 4'04. No doubt Britten would protest, but Komsi and the OCO take the words "being of majestic stature" to heart, and her solo floats her sweet voice out against a chill snowy landscape depicted by the strings. Using vibrato only on certain words, this restrained passion underpinned by shivering, silvery strings, Komsi's reading is very memorable.

'Being Beautiful' re-appears as the chosen poetic vehicle of Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926), an innovative modernist and thus anathema to some listeners. Using only four cellos and a harp for accompaniment, his particular interpretation of Rimbaud uses weightless atonality laced with fluid vocal lines of wistful melancholy. Despite Henze's expanding a four minute song to almost 15 minutes, Komsi ensures that every darkly emotive word is given its due weight, especially in a central section of more outlandish vocalisations. Henze's combination of glittering harp and coloratura voice reveals a secret inner world.

Schönberg's choice of a psychodelic Maeterlinck is "like an expressive painting", according to Komsi. Its surreal title, Foliage of the Heart (1911), is accompanied by the curious combination of harp, harmonium and celesta. The harmonium, probably used for sardonic irony, brings the music into a fusty Germanic parlour. Together, as Anu Komsi says in her liner notes, the instruments add sounds like those from a horror film. The piece poses formidable obstacles for the soprano; including a stretch from very low G sharp up to a very high F, and holding a high F pianissimo for 8 seconds, all of which Komsi handles with aplomb. She admits to having carried this song with her all through her career, and she was particularly pleased to be able to sing it in the Brahms Hall of the Vienna Musikverein where it was first performed in Austria. The performance on this disc is notable for the intense near stillness of the instrumental sections as well as Komsi's idiomatic singing. It only lasts for about 3 minutes, but is packed with intricate detail - and beauty of a strange sort.

Nicolo Castiglioni (1932-1996) is amusingly (and apparently affectionately) described by Komsi as a "Tyrolean sneaker in Lederhosen". An irrepressable avant-guardist, Castiglioni wrote Terzina at Christmas 1992, as a three part miniature based on text in German by the mystic Gerhard Teerstagen (1697-1769). "God is God of the heart", asserts the opening stanza of this religious ritual. There are some very high notes here for Komsi to negotiate, but most memorable is its very soft playing and inwardly felt singing, the last words ("so that no storm can touch them") being chanted. Rarely heard, this miniature certainly bears repeat listening, especially for its colourful instrumentation of flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, percussion, violin, viola and cello, used with great discretion.

Last, but by no means least, comes Szymanowski's "The Cherry Tree" of 1911, arguably one of his masterpieces. Komsi has yet another language to deal with - its text appears to be written in Polish, but the author, Julian Tuwin, delighted in producing archaic-sounding poems whose words were entangled in ancient Slavic roots. Slopiwenie is the place where the piece was first heard, its name now attached to the work's title. Usually heard with piano accompaniment, this performance uses an ensemble of flute,oboe, clarinet, French horn, piano, violin, viola and double bass. There is no indication whether this is the composer's score or an arrangement.

Being in the Tatra Mountains while composing this suite of songs, Szymanowski blended the Tatra folk song idiom with various forms of modernism; ancient modal harmonies mixing with harsh as well as more flavoursome harmonies. His vivid pictorialism captures sun-kissed cherry trees full of bees and honey and a nightingale singing at night time, the 'Green Joy' of escape to the forbidding forest depths with a foal frolicking by a stream, a manifestation of St Francis complete with attendant birds, flowers and angels, the bloody redness of some Witch's Towers and red Autumn storms, and the folk tale of Wanda, a King's daughter who drowned herself, the water caressing her shining tresses as she sank to the depths. Mixing foreboding and mystery, Komsi uses interpretive speculation to vividly portray such scenes, taking the challenging vocal part fully in her stride. Be careful, however, not to be startled, as I was, by several full power whoops! 'The Cherry Trees' is a vocal tour-de-force, matched by the finely detailed instrumental accompaniment conducted by Oramo.

There is little to be said about the superb recording, which entirely allows the listener to focus on the music in both stereo and multichannel 5.1 surround. Recorded in two venues, ambience is well-controlled, perspectives natural and detail excellent. The insert booklet has texts in the original French, German and "Polish" with translations into English and Finnish. Commentary by Anu Komsi, biographies and performer details are, however, supplied in a very complex arrangement of them with the texts, which is not easily navigable in the heat of listening.

If you are looking for a Britten-approved Les Illuminations, this would not be for you, as Komsi takes a very personal and creative view of the piece. In context of this programme, however, it is quite unmissable. Komsi's French pronunciation does not quite come up to Lott's, and at times her diction is not very clear in the other languages, despite her ideal balance in the mix. I must add a warning that the disc is mastered at a surprisingly high level, and rather caught me aback at Komsi's first full fortissimo - she has a very big voice, so initial backing off the volume should bring about more comfortable listening. There are minor issues, then, which for me did not affect my overall enjoyment.

Brilliantly played by the OCO and Uusinta Chamber Ensemble, Anu Komsi's programme is highly desirable for those interested in the orchestral song's development after Mahler's brand of late Romanticism. "Being Beauteous" suits this album too.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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