Sydney Symphony Orchestra is renowned for its meaningful programs, where the individual items are connected through some historical, musical, or even technical thread. Whether most members of the audience notice that the program focuses on great Romantic masterpieces, a particular year in history, or the works of one composer is another matter. The program of this week’s subscription concerts, however, was less than convincing. The juxtaposition of Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, op.18 with the Gustav Mahler’s mammoth, ninety-minute-long Symphony No. 6 in A minor offered unfair comparisons. Aficionados waited for Simone Young’s rendition of ‘The Sixth’ with great anticipation. By contrast, Britten’s brilliant opus seemed slight and ill-fitting, the interval came too soon, and the concert finished later than most SSO concerts. Less, on this occasion, would have been more.
Les Illuminations – based on French poems by Arthur Rimbaud – is an early example of Britten’s fascination with the human voice and its colourful combination with instruments. (First performed in 1940, it precedes Peter Grimes by five years.) The British composer successfully adopted an idiomatic style in which the French words fit perfectly while remaining true to his own musical language. Furthermore, it is a curious fact that the work can be performed with either a soprano or tenor soloist, an uncommon liberty granted by the composer who wrote the work first with a female voice in mind but recorded it with his life partner, Peter Pears.
Two expatriate Australians stood at the helm of this performance, with tenor Steve Davislim performing the solo part, and Simone Young conducting. It was a solid if hardly memorable reading of the work. In the opening movement, the daring apposition of one trumpet-like passage on the violas in B flat major, and another on the violins in E major (the key furthest away), felt ordinary rather than shocking; perhaps, because the composer’s instruction to play these runs in an eerie tone (sul ponticello) was not audibly followed. Delicate hints in the score were noted but at times executed unclearly. The elegant rubato of these songs (demonstrated, for example, in the seminal Lockenhaus Festival recording, available on YouTube), a hard task indeed, was not a main feature of this performance.