Tuesday 24 July 2012

Britten's Canticles at St. Brides

St Bride's Church, 19th century etching
As part of their Olympic festival, St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London, mounted an enterprising concert encompassing all five of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles performed by the church’s Director of Music (Robert Jones), assistant Director of Music (Matthew Morley) and a group of singers and instrumentalists, many of whom are associated with the church. Britten’s Canticles cover nearly the whole of his composing life. Each written for different forces, they were not necessarily designed to go together but make a highly satisfactory whole, with a remarkable coherence between each of them.

The single common factor in all five is the tenor voice, in particular the tenor voice of Peter Pears. At St. Bride’s Church, tenors Tom Herford and David de Winter shared the honours with Herford doing the first three Canticles and de Winter the last two.

Britten wrote Canticle I, My Beloved is mine in 1947 first performing it himself accompanying Peter Pears. A setting of Francis Quarles, it is a lyrical piece with much verbal imagery. Herford, accompanied by Matthew Morley on piano, sang with a lovely sense of line, nice even tone and a relaxed top. On its own terms, his performance was very beautiful but I would have liked it to be less understated and more responsive to the verbal imagery.

For Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, Herford and Morley were joined by counter-tenor Bob Bryan. First performed in 1952 by Britten, Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, this was the first time I had heard the piece sung by a counter-tenor. Bryan has a soft-grained and attractive voice, very different in style to Ferrier’s dark contralto. He and Herford both blended and tuned beautifully so that the duet passages, when the singers voice the words of God, were spine tingling. In the more recitative sections Herford, who has a burgeoning operatic career, made the most of the work’s quasi-operatic potential.

Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain was written in 1954 and first performed by Pears and Britten with horn-player Dennis Brain. It sets a poem by Edith Sitwell, and in 1956 Britten added three more songs and some spoken poems, with Sitwell herself reading, calling the work The Heart of the Matter. Peter Pears revised the sequence of readings in 1983. It was in this form that it was performed, with Bob Bryan reading Sitwell’s poems eloquently; Herford and Morley were joined by Anthony Mann on French Horn.

Britten’s extra material mixes lyrical Finzi-esque writing for tenor and piano with fanfare-like sections for the horn. The meat of the piece remains the Canticle itself and there is a hauntingly evocative postlude for horn solo.

I have to confess that I found the imagery in the poems a little difficult and would have to really read them over again quietly to appreciate them properly.

Herford successfully moved between the lyrical outpourings of the Finzi-esque songs and the tougher world of the Canticle, giving a perfectly judged and eloquent performance. Here he really made something of the words and there was a telling contrast between the intensity of his delivery and the denser textures of the horn, finely realised by Anthony Mann.

In all three of these Canticles, the performers were able and sympathetically supported by Matthew Morley’s piano.

For Canticle IV, The Journey of the Magi, we had a changeover of personnel, with this being performed by Ben Williamson (counter-tenor), David de Winter (tenor), Philip Tebb (baritone) and Robert Jones (piano). Britten’s setting of T. S. Eliot’s poem was premiered in 1971, by James Bowman, Peter Pears, John Shirley Quirke with Benjamin Britten on piano.

Williamson, De Winter and Tebb gave a fine performance, in which they blended their rather different voices to stunning effect in the opening and closing passages. The solo sections, I thought, did not register quite as effectively and Williamson’s voice seemed too soft-grained compared to the other two. But the final section was so perfectly judged that one forgave them all. Richard Jones’s piano was discreetly effective throughout.

The final Canticle, The Death of St. Narcissus, was written for Pears and Ossian Ellis, just after Death in Venice. It is a strangely elliptical piece, setting an odd item of juvenilia by T. S. Eliot. David de Winter gave a free and natural account of Britten’s flexible yet complex recitative-like setting. He has a lovely lyric voice, with a dramatic edge, and used it well. But he did not quite convince that he was involved with the poem’s oddly erotic imagery, despite the confidence of his bigger dramatic gestures. De Winter was ably abetted by Alison Martin on harp. She played with aplomb a part which hardly accompanies, but rather interrupts and comments.

St. Bride’s Church has an attractive if resonant acoustic for this style of concert. All monies raised went to The Inspire Appeal. Robert Jones, Matthew Morley and their team are to be congratulated for such an enterprising and satisfying event.

The St. Bride’s Olympic Festival continues all week, further information from the church website.

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