Thursday 21 February 2013

Britten - The Canticles

Britten's canticles span virtually his whole creative life with the first, My beloved is mine appearing in 1947 after Albert Herring and the last The Death of St Narcissus in 1974 after Death in Venice. Each is written for a different combination of voice and instruments but the thread running through all of them is the tenor voice; notably the voice of Peter Pears. Ben Johnson was recently seen at ENO singing the role of Alfredo in the new production of La Traviata. This recording was made in association with the BBC. It is dedicated to Johnson's teacher, Neil Mackie, who was himself a pupil and friend of Pears, so Johnson comes from a fine pedigree.

Canticle I, My Beloved is Mine sets poetry by the 17th century Francis Quarles, who wrote almost exclusively religious poetry. At first sight the poem is a meditation on the ecstasy of man's relationship to God, but Britten's treatment of the text  has led commentators to wonder how much the result is about homosexuality. The result is at times surprisingly direct, for all the floridness of the vocal writing.

Ben Johnson sings with an admirable firmness of tone and great flexibility. His performances are richly characterful, with his voice surprisingly strong and quite full. He brings a range of tone and colour to his performance, with beautiful placement of the voice. James Baillieu is a sympathetic and vigorous accompanist.

Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac was written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier who had created the title role in the English Opera Group's performances of The Rape of Lucretia.  Britten had recently finished Billy Budd and rather interestingly there is a link here because Melville quotes Abraham and Isaac in his novella. Britten brilliantly encapsulates an entire operatic canvas with just 2 singers, a piano and a 15 minute piece.

Johnson is joined by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie and the two combine for a wonderfully magical and haunting opening. The two voices are in contrast, with Johnson all firmness and vigour, Ainslie slightly covered tone but nicely free particularly in the top register. The two combine to create an intense and very personal drama which brings out the very operatic feel of the canticle.

The tone darkens with Canticle III, Still falls the rain which was written for a memorial concert for Noel Mewton-Wood who had committed suicide; the piece also reflects Britten's fascination with the twelve-tone system. It was written just three months after the premiere of The Turn of the Screw and both works use theme and variations.

Johnson's care for the words really comes over in the third canticle, combined with a dark intensity of line. Both he and horn player Martin Owen bring a haunting beauty to the work, and the way they combine in the final moments is magical. Edith Sitwell's words are strong, and Britten's response is surprisingly tough. Johnson's vibrant tones create a hauntingly intense performance. I was pleased to note that the performers recorded the original canticle on its own, and not the longer sequence The Heart of the Matter which Britten and Pears created later.

The final two canticles both set T.S. Eliot poetry, and they stand either side of Britten's final operatic work Death in Venice. Canticle IV, The Journey of the Magi was premiered by James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley Quirk, all of whom performed in Death in Venice. Britten's setting of Eliot's poem is masterly in the way it convey's the sheer uneasiness of the Magi, making you feel the cold and using changing time signatures to convey the awkwardness of the journey.

There is profound beauty in the way Ainslie, Johnson and baritone Benedict Nelson combine with Baillieu's nervous, edgy piano. For the narrative sections, each voice is quite dramatic in their solo contributions but the three come together in a way which is poignant, with each of the three voices being perfectly placed.

Canticle V, The Death of St Narcissus sets a curious piece of juvenilia by Eliot. Johnson copes well with the flowery text and convinces that there is a depth and beauty to it. He is superbly accompanied by Lucy Wakeford's harp.

Time and again in these performances I was struct by how much care Johnson takes with the placement of words and music, and by the richness that he brings to these pieces. All five are heavily text based works, and Johnson shows that he has learned to not only cope with the texts, but to render them with eloquence. Johnson's voice is rich and fully on the edge of moving away from a lyric, but he sings with a powerful sense of line and a sophisticated use of tonal colour palate.  

James Baillieu is far more than just a sympathetic supporter, and his fully Johnson's partner. You might have accounts of the canticles by other, better known singers, but I can recommend this new one for its intelligence and insight.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Canticle I, Op. 40, My beloved is mine (1947) [8.04]
Benjamin Britten - Canticle II, Op. 51, Abraham and Isaac (1952) [17.01]
Benjamin Britten - Canticle III, Op. 55, Still Falls the Rain - the Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn (1954) [12.01]
Benjamin Britten - Canticle IV, Op. 86, The Journey of the Magi (1971) [11.13]
Benjamin Britten - Canticle V, Op.89, The Death of Saint Narcissus (1974) [7.40]
Ben Johnson (tenor)
James Baillieu (piano)
Christopher Ainslie (counter-tenor)
Benedict Nelson (baritone)
Martin Owen (horn)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Recorded at Maida Vale Studio 2, London from 11-13 April 2012

SIGNUM SIGCD317 1CD [56.01]

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