Katherine McIndoe with brilliant performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts
Katherine McIndoe (soprano) with Catherine Norton (piano)

Britten: Les Illuminations (I Fanfare, II Villes, III Antique, IV Royauté, V Marine, VI Interlude, VII Being beauteous, VIII Parade, IX Départ)
Copland: Selections from Old American Songs: Long Time Ago, Simple Gifts, The Little Horses
Britten: Selection from Folk Song Arrangements: Dink’s Song

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 August, 12:15 pm

Soprano Katherine McIndoe has been at the Guildhall School in London for the past year, though she was last heard, conspicuously, in both the operas staged in the middle of last year by Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera: Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Guilietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  In Britain she sang at the Aldeburgh Festival last year as a Britten-Piers Young Artist, and was the Governess in The Turn of the Screw and Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, and at the Barbican was Sister Catherine in the UK premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (in which another prominent New Zealander, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, had sung in its inaugural production in San Francisco). Currently she is a finalist Australian Singing Competition.

Pianist Catherine Norton preceded McIndoe at the Guildhall by a few years, then as a Britten-Piers Young Artist, but also at the Franz Schubert-Institute for Lieder and Graham Johnson’s Young Songmakers’ Almanac; and she has appeared at the Barbican, LSO St Luke’s and the Oxford Lieder Festival. And she has performed in France, Germany and Northern Ireland and Malta. She is now tutor in vocal accompaniment at Victoria University School of Music.

So this was a significant recital from a highly promising singer with one of the best accompanists in the country.

By far the most important item in the 45 minute recital was Britten’s setting of nine of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. The name needs to be understood in the sense of the practice of decorating manuscripts – throughout the Middle Ages and even into the printing era.

McIndoe sang the cycle, memorised, in very convincing, idiomatic French: accompanied by the piano (instead of the original string orchestra).

Though the nature of the St Andrew’s free lunchtime concerts limits presentation costs, it’s a pity that fuller programmes could not have been offered for a recital like this. They should ideally be printed in both French and English, and several pages would probably be required. There are 42 prose poems in Rimbaud’s collection, written mainly in his youth, during the time of his relationship with Verlaine (ten years older than Rimbaud), which famously involved the latter shooting Rimbaud, though not fatally.

It opens arrestingly and appropriately (or not), with Fanfare which is not one of the poems, but simply the last line from Parade which is the second-to-last song in Britten’s cycle (‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’); and it’s a line that is repeated between Marine and Being Beauteous, as well as in Parade itself. It’s everything a fanfare should be, commanding attention, compelling. Then Villes II, wild and staccato, suggesting modern, urban chaos (even in post 1870 Paris), with satanic moments echoing the Ride to the Abyss from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust.

Though Britten’s settings are by no means influenced by the more radical styles of early 20th century music, they do create a singular, unpredictable, unique feeling, as distinctive musically as are Rimbaud’s poems which were likewise shockingly radical in form and sense. They range, from both voice and piano, across jumpy staccato intervals, sometimes collaborative, sometimes in a sort of conflict. They sometimes present a polished sheen, then a ferocious outburst expressing terror or danger; then a calm episode, a slow waltz rhythm with an adventurous melody with keyboard-spanning intervals.

In Being Beauteous, words seem to struggle against the music, moving from hushed to contorted utterances; and Parade, frenzied, left an impression of violence hardly expressed before in music. I scribbled ‘a sense that nothing before or since has been created like this’. A momentary feeling, and not altogether inaccurate.

Though I was acquainted with Les Illuminations many years ago, I had not paid them close attention and so I found this performance a revelation. With the poems and the song texts in front of me as I wrote, I realised that Britten cherry-picks words from each poem, and a couple of times borrows a bare sentence from other, unidentified poems: for example, there’s a short sentence before Antique, ‘J’ai tendu des cordes à clocher à clocher”, that comes from some scraps labelled Fragments de feuillet 12.

Like most great songs and song cycles, words and music are of equal importance, and together they conjure very particular impressions and sensibilities; the poems were ground-breaking in the 1880s, and Britten’s settings of about a quarter of them made a remarkable impact on musical England in the 1940s (though probably on very small numbers).

One would expect that audience members, when they got home, would have reached for their anthologies of French verse or detoured by the Public Library to borrow a volume of Rimbaud’s verse.

For your amusement… enlightenment… edification, I found this comment on the YouTube recording by Ian Bostridge: “It’s like a madman shouting in the street. Imagine a stranger coming up to you with an intense expression and emphatically saying to you, “I alone hold the key to this passing parade” referring to life in general. Why do we respect madness, which was once considered repulsive, and conflate it with deep insight? When did our civilization become like this? We must wake up, especially now, or we are doomed.”

After that, Copland’s three Old American Songs seemed slightly irrelevant, though performed with distinction, offering vivid contrasts from one to another. And returning to Britten at the end with Dink’s Song, American originated, it was stunningly accompanied by its startling Brittenesque piano part. While the essence of the performance of Les Iluminations rested heavily on both words and music, both singer and pianist provided an immaculate and highly accomplished vehicle for the entire recital.

This was a lunchtime concert to be remembered.


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