Britten's Canticles span much of his creative life, with the first Canticle I: My Beloved is mine written for himself and Peter Pears in 1947 and the last one Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus written in 1974 when the composer was recovering from heart surgery. Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus was written for Peter Pears and Ossian Ellis, because the composer was too frail to play the piano in public. Whilst the canticles were all written individually and have a rather eclectic mix of texts, they share a commonality. All were written for friends and close collaborators; Peter Pears was a constant, but also Kathleen Ferrier, James Bowman, Ossian Ellis, Denis Brain and John Shirley Quirk. Also, many of the canticles link to the operas that Britten was writing at the time, so that Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi comes just before Death in Venice, Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac has links to Billy Budd and Canticle III: Still falls the Rain has a structure which links to The Turn of the Screw, the opera which preceded it.
Tenor Mark Padmore has been very much associated with Britten's music, performing his songs and, more recently, the tenor parts in the operas. Whilst Padmore has a very different voice to Peter Pears, the two singers share the same specialism in lieder and Bach's Passions with both being noted Evangelists. This has repercussions for the sophisticated interaction of words and music required in the Britten Canticles but also the way the Britten wrote for Pears voice, showing of the flexibility of Pears' upper range. A very different artist in many ways, Padmore is able to respond to these challenges using his own voice to create profoundly satisfactory versions of Britten's Canticles.
The disc opens with Padmore and Drake performing Britten's Canticle I: My Beloved is mine, a setting texts by the metaphysical poet Francis Quarles (1592 - 1644). Though the text is a metaphysical allegory, it must have been rather startling for the first audience in 1947 to hear Pears singing, in his very clear diction, about his male beloved. Here Padmore uses his familiar expressive tones, bringing a wide variety of colours to the voice and giving us the feeling that the words come first. This is very much a performance shaped and coloured by the words, both Britten and Padmore's response to them.
Padmore and Drake are joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies for Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac setting a text taken from the Chester Miracle Plays. It was first performed in 1952, with the composer accompanying Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier; Britten recorded it with a boy alto, but the alto part has more recently been taken very successfully into the countertenor repertoire. Here Iestyn Davies blends miraculously with Padmore, their intoning of the words of God at the beginning and end is simply magic, as the two singing blend finely and both combine a subtle way with the words.
Padmore is wonderfully vigorous and virile as Abraham, with a finely firm line. His characterisation is highly dramatic without ever being too operatic, and his familiar way with words counts for much. The moment when Abraham reveals to Isaac that he is the sacrifice, is simply thrilling. But there are plenty of moments when Padmore fines down the tone beautifully. Davies sings with a lovely sense of line and some superbly floated high notes. The farewell duet between the two is profoundly moving, with both singers exhibiting fine control, then there is a steady build in both singers and piano towards the death scene. The reappearance of the angel brings back the magic of the opening.
The canticles are not recorded in date order, but the final canticle with harp accompaniment is placed centrally. This has the effect creating a degree of symmetry on the disc, with the canticles where Padmore is joined by other singers placed second and fourth.
Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus sets an early poem by T.S.Eliot and Britten himself said 'I haven't got the remotest idea what it's about'. It is indeed a curious text, but Britten sets it for the seductive combination of harp and voice. Here Padmore and Lucy Wakeford do the work full justice and seduce indeed. Padmore combines some gorgeous floated notes with strong words; he sounds entirely convinced and convincing, as if he really does know what the poem is about. There is an otherworldliness and a clarity to the performance and in the final lines with their description of his death, Padmore gives us a superbly powerful sense of music inflect words.
Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi was written in 1971 for James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley Quirk, the canticle setting the poem by T.S. Eliot inspired by the sermon by the 17th century divine Lancelot Andrewes. The three voice combine for the narrative, with each receiving short solo moments. Here Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and Marcus Farnsworth display an amazing feel for the blend; all three have a superb feel for the colour of the words. Both Davies and Farnsworth match Padmore for the clarity of performance. Powerful where necessary, with vivid colours and a firmness of line, there is also something magically hypnotic about such moments as 'this was all folly'. The ending, as is probably intended, combines beauty with a sense of being unsettling.
Canticle III: Still falls the Rain sets a poem by Edith Sitwell. It was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1955, performed by Peter Pears, Dennis Brian and Benjamin Britten. Sitwell's poem draws a parallel between the Blitz and Christ's passion and indeed Britten's setting is astonishingly powerful. Here Padmore and Drake are joined by Richard Watkins on horn. Watkins plays the dark, sombre introduction with a lovely veiled tone. Mark Padmore sings with his most haunting of mezzo-voce and superb clarity of words. Moments of biting edge dissolve into floated loveliness. All three performers bring a remarkable range of colours to the piece, and this is performance of intense power.
A special mention must go to pianist Julius Drake who gives subtle support in four of the canticles and brings such an enormous range of colour and subtlety to Britten's piano parts.
The CD booklet comes with an article by Richard Wigmore on the music, plus short articles by Iestyn Davies and Mark Padmore which illuminate their thoughts on these performances; plus full texts.
It is difficult to believe that these performances were recorded live. Audience noise is to a minimum, and all the performers are superbly controlled. These are performances very much governed by the personality of Padmore's voice, its warmth, colour, seductiveness and the generous ease throughout the range. This disc captures the essence of what must have been very special event. Whilst other discs of the canticles are highly recommendable, this is essential listening.
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle I: My Beloved is mine (1947) [7.36]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1953) [16.39]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus (1974) [8.14]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi (1971) [12.35]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle III: Still falls the Rain - The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn (1955) [13.27]
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Richard Watkins (horn)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, London, 30 November 2013
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLive0064 1CD [59.23]
Benjamin Britten - Canticles; Mark Padmore and Julius DrakeElsewhere on this blog:
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 28 2013
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 28 2013
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