Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poems Les Illuminations are strange fragments of visions that can mean anything or nothing, depending on the attitude of the reader. The best way to read them is to set your mind free and plunge unquestioningly into Rimbaud’s world of hallucinations, and see what happens, and this must be what Britten did when he set Les Illuminations for high voice and string orchestra, for through his music he shows us his own, very personal, and emotionally charged understanding of Rimbaud’s words. Britten unerringly picks texts of startling brilliance, and it’s not hard to see how Rimbaud’s mixture of ambiguity and sensuality would have appealed to Britten.
The task for the performers is then to add their own layer of understanding to Rimbaud’s words and Britten’s music, and to present the songs with conviction, something that Julie Fuchs and Royal Northern Sinfonia achieved to stunning effect this evening at Sage Gateshead. It is always good to hear this cycle sung by a native French speaker (it was dedicated to, and first performed by the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss), who can effortlessly roll out the awkward sounds of the language, particularly in Villes and Parade where the words tumble out in a carnival of madness.

Thomas Zehetmair © Mark Savage courtesy of Royal Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair
© Mark Savage courtesy of Royal Northern Sinfonia

The cycle opens with a simple statement “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (I alone hold the key to this wild parade), declaimed on a single note. This phrase is repeated in the middle and at the end of the cycle, each time in a different mood. Julie Fuchs began assertively, assuring us that she knew what she wanted to say, before relaxing into confidential storytelling of the city scene that follows in Villes. Throughout the cycle her performance was vivid and engaging, and her bright tone was able to convey the child-like innocence of Phrases or Royauté but still with enough vibrato to add tones of very adult sensuality to the eroticism of Being Beauteous (an early declaration by Britten of his love for Peter Pears) and Antique. There were one or two moments, particularly in the very quiet, high passages, where she wasn’t completely in control but there were also phrases of exquisite beauty, such as the rippling descent downwards at the end of Phrases and the melismas in Marine.

Thomas Zehetmair and Royal Northern Sinfonia’s strings added their own extra layer of illumination. The piece opens with a violin fanfare over a low cello trill; this trill was so quiet it was almost inaudible, a barely perceptible source of tension that gradually grew louder and more menacing. They were terrifying too in the monstrous catalogue of Parade and utterly wanton in the orgasmic shudderings of Being Beauteous.

The whole cycle seemed to flash by in an instant, ending with the opening key phrase now an ecstatic shout of triumph, followed swiftly by comedown of the morning after, Départ, the day when the poet realises it’s all too much to endure, as the strings wind down through final low dissonances to its eventual resolution.

Les Illuminations had a long and complicated evolution, and several songs that Britten eventually rejected in the final compilation were recently rediscovered and orchestrated by Colin Matthews. Britten’s final version of Les Illuminations is so perfectly constructed that it was a sensible programming move to present these three extra songs separately, after the interval. During the interval I read on Julie Fuchs’s twitter account that she had only realised at the last minute that she was singing these but it didn’t show, for her assurance and thoughtfulness continued. Matthews’s orchestration is heavier and denser than Britten’s and so these songs lack the limpid beauty of the original cycle, but nonetheless they were an interesting addition to the programme.

What was less understandable was the decision by Royal Northern Sinfonia to programme Britten with Mozart. The first work in the concert, the first “Salzburg Symphony” Divertimento in D just about worked, for this sparkling party music, written when Mozart was just sixteen, seemed to suggest a politer, more aristocratic version of the city pleasures explored by Rimbaud. Royal Northern Sinfonia switched nimbly between the contrasting moods of the piece, and a strong cello section gave it some unexpected weight. The Symphony No 39, however, broke the mood of darkly sophisticated pleasure that had been created by Les Illuminations, which was a pity because it detracted from Thomas Zehetmair’s superb handling of Mozart. He conducted both the Mozart pieces without a score, and with such vibrancy that it felt as if he was creating this music himself, out of nothing. The woodwind and brass players of Royal Northern Sinfonia, joining their colleagues just for this last piece, were on fine form; the winds elegant and the brass delightfully light. It was a lovely performance but it was in the wrong concert.