The programme includes the Quatre Chansons françaises, one of Britten's earliest recorded works, alongside the two works from the composer's fertile middle years, and it thus offers an absorbing insight into the composer’s lifelong fascination with word setting.
One of Britten's first creative tasks on arriving in America in May 1939 was the completion of Les Illuminations op.18, a song cycle for the soprano Sophie Wyss. These fragmentary, erotic, half-apprehended visions of Rimbaud are perhaps best approached through Britten's own acute musical stylization of them - vivid, direct, contemplative, tender or grotesque as the case may be. Throughout, the virtuosity of the solo soprano is brilliantly matched by that of the iridescent string orchestra.
Benjamin Britten composed his Quatre Chansons françaises in the summer of 1928, before reaching his fifteenth birthday. That words and music were by now the schoolboy composer’s natural vehicle of expression is confirmed by the many touching Walter de la Mare settings of these years, but in this work there is a clear indication of an ambition to broaden expressive horizons. Moreover, in the third song there occurs a strange premonition of an important motif of Britten’s creative maturity: the theme of childhood and death, innocence and corrupting experience.
Serenade is a work that defines Britten’s genius to perfection. Here is a flowering of that uncanny response to word and image which, after close collaboration with some of the finest poets of the Thirties, had by now the added stimulus of a close working relationship with a singer of unique sensibility, the tenor Peter Pears, for whom this 'Nocturne' was composed. Counterpointing and echoing the vocal line is the solo horn. The poems set by Britten centre on night, sleep and dreams - a realm of experience which the composer was subsequently to make particularly his own.
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