Friday 22 November 2013

Konstellation perform Britten's Canticles

Libby Burgess
Last night (21 November) we heard a new group, Konstellation, performing Britten's Canticles. Joining pianist Libby Burgess at a private concert were tenor Peter Davoren, counter-tenor Roderick Morris, baritone Johnny Herford, horn player Adrian Uren and harpist Fontane Liang. The did not perform the canticles in historical date order, instead choosing an order which started and finished with the two ensemble canticles and put the one with solo horn at the centre of the programme - Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86, Canticle I: My beloved is Mine, Op.40, Canticle III: Still falls the Rain, Op.55, Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89 and Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op.51

 Britten's canticles are not strictly a set, each was written under slightly different circumstances but together they form a satisfactory whole covering a substantial period of Britten's composing life from 1947 to 1975.

Roderick Morris, Peter Davoren and Johnny Herford joined Libby Burgess for a mesmerising performance of Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi (setting a text by T.S. Elliot) in which the three voices combined together in a hauntingly beautiful manner, whilst being highly expressive in their solos. Davoren gave a fine account of Canticle I: My beloved is Mine his voice lyrically expressive in the florid passages but with rising to intense power at the climaxes.The text by Francis Quartles (1562 - 1644) is inspired by the Song of Solomon and Britten's use of it to create homo-erotic quasi-religious imagery must have seemed rather startling to the original listeners in 1947.

Canticle III: Still falls the Rain is perhaps the darkest of the five, premiered in 1955 by Peter Pears, Dennis Brain and Britten with a text written by Edith Sitwell (The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn). Here performed by Davoren, Burgess and Adrian Uren in a contained but darkly expressive account. Uren is particularly to be congratulated on his fine controlled horn playing.

Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus was written for Peter Pears and Ossian Ellis at a time when Britten was too ill to perform himself. It sets a rather odd, early poem by T.S.Elliot and I have to confess that for me it is the most problematic of the group. Davoren and harpist Fontane Liang gave a confident and sympathetic performance, with some lovely harp playing from Liang, without ever quite convincing me.

Finally we had the intense drama of Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac setting a passage from the Chester Miracle Plays, Davoren as Abraham and Morris as Isaac with the two joining together for the voice of God to create a profoundly beautiful sound which had a quality different to their strongly dramatic solo performances.

Konstellation was formed earlier this year by Burgess to champion the combined programming possibilities of song and chamber music in recital.

All the performers impressed and I look forward to hearing them again. Inevitably with the canticles it was Davoren's firm but flexible tenor which was central to the performance, Burgess proved a fine and sympathetic accompanist in Britten's imaginative piano writing.

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