Light fantastic: Mary Bevan, ‘Visions Illuminées’

It’s always a delight to come across an album so richly crafted and ingeniously programmed, you get an overwhelming sense that you’re hearing something intensely personal, a snapshot of what the artist wants to say ‘right now’. ‘Visions Illuminées’ feels like one of those records.

Soprano Mary Bevan has featured on numerous recordings, but on Signum Records she is building up a series of albums ‘as leader’ (to borrow the jazz phrase). ‘Voyages’ and ‘The Divine Muse’, both themed voice/piano recitals with Joseph Middleton, were as fascinating as they were beautiful, combining ‘classics’ with some more unusual, intriguing choices, always resulting in a rounded, complete experience.

Ringing the changes, Bevan has surrounded herself with strings for her third release. Realising her wish to record ‘Les Illuminations’ – Benjamin Britten’s sequence of Rimbaud settings – Bevan then built up the rest of the programme with mélodies from French composers.

In some cases, this means we’re treated to songs we might already know and love, but in little (if ever) heard arrangements for string orchestra, mainly by the composers themselves: Fauré’s setting of ‘Clair de Lune’ provides a glorious overture-of-sorts for the whole record, ahead of a magical trio of Duparc, Chabrier and Chausson at around the halfway mark.

Elsewhere, Bevan includes two sequences orchestrated by Robin Holloway. In both cases – one, a group of three Ravel songs, and the other, a series of Verlaine settings by Debussy (one of this recording’s world premières) – Holloway goes beyond fleshing out the arrangements. Each sequence includes newly-composed sections that join the songs into a single, unbroken piece; for Debussy, he introduces an extra song (‘Mandoline’) from much earlier in the composer’s career as it makes a good thematic fit with the others.

Bevan tells us she is particularly drawn to the “depth and … mystery” she finds in mélodies. As Helen Abbott’s booklet essay explains, the album accordingly engages in the process of ‘illumination’: how the composers draw out the meaning of the text with the music; and in turn, how expanding and reshaping that music allows us to look deeper still into the work, to unlock its intricacies.

While this underlying theme provides unity and sense of purpose, it’s worth noting some other illuminations at ‘listener level’ that enable the recital to land so meaningfully on first hearing.

I’m fascinated by how albums are put together, and the sequencing of this record is crucial to its brilliance. Bevan is backed by two ensembles: 12 Ensemble for broadly the first half of the record, and the Ruisi Quartet for the second. Middleton adds piano to some of the tracks in each half, so the album has this lovely consistency with strings throughout, against a ‘shapeshifting’ vibe where over the course of the programme, the combination of instruments you hear keeps changing slightly.

Intimacy is key. As the name suggests, 12 Ensemble are a chamber orchestra with 12(ish!) string players plus extra personnel as needed (here they more or less double up with an additional wind section). They perform without a conductor, which is surely one reason why their playing suggests a ‘hive-mind’ responsiveness. So, as we move through the album into the quintet settings (Ruisi plus Middleton), it has the effect of drawing the listener further in as the forces decrease.

The mood-swings in the running order of the pieces are fascinating: to me, they document a gradual overall journey from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, but with skilful shifts in emphasis along the way. Looking at the larger cycles included, unrest seems to dominate at first, with Britten’s high-energy agitation and Ravel’s sense of unease. Later in the programme, Debussy – in his unique way – seems to take this restlessness on board but ultimately quell it in a majestic swoon. Finally, the Holmès ‘Sérénades’ closes proceedings with an almost chanson-like balm.

Rightly so, Bevan is the glue that holds this ambitious recital together. The material provides a perfect showcase for her voice, from searing to silken, always warm and luxurious. I always admire Middleton’s touch and fluidity, an ideal foil whether playing sweeping lines, or bringing continuity to more fractured accompaniments – always enhancing and anchoring the sound, a true collaborative musician.

The ensembles are immaculate, not to mention thrilling: there are points in the Britten and Debussy in particular that punch through with an almost Adams-like hyperactivity. With that in mind, I also think it just to mention the technical team (producer Raphaël Mouterde, engineer Mike Hatch, assistant Sophie Watson) who have made it possible to hear these fine performances in such detail.

Warmly recommended.


(Photo credit: Victoria Cadisch.)

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