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Benjamin Britten ‘In Memoriam’ :  The Canticles. Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) Leigh Melrose (baritone) Richard Watkins (horn) Lucy Wakeford (harp) Roger Vignoles (piano) Wigmore Hall, 3.12.2006 (M E)

 




The Wigmore assembled some of the starriest names in British Song for its 3 day commemorative Britten weekend, and this performance of the five Canticles, seldom given as a whole and never conceived as such, will be a hard one to emulate. It is being given in its entirety on BBC Radio 3’s Voices programme at 16.00 on Tuesday 5th, so you will be able to judge for yourself.

 

The pieces were originally written for Peter Pears  (but how sad that the Wigmore’s programme notes – usually reliably excellent in terms of both content and style – had to describe him as Britten’s ‘principle interpreter’  - the second time I’ve seen that error this week, with Cadogan Hall unhappily advertising itself as ‘one of the UK’s principle concert venues.’ If they can’t find someone who can write, surely they could find someone who can edit?) and in our own time it is John Mark Ainsley who has taken on that mantle, and done it peerlessly. The tenor holds these works together like a Bach Evangelist, sometimes the semi-detached narrator, sometimes the passionate advocate, and it is hard to imagine finer singing or characterization than he gives us. My Beloved is Mine sets Quarles’ ‘A Divine Rapture’ as a love poem rather than a devotional outpouring: the delicately evocative beginning , with the piano parts merging so appropriately, was wonderfully done by Ainsley and Vignoles, and lines such as ‘I’m his by purchase, he is mine by blood’ and the final ‘Thus I my best beloved’s am. Thus he is mine’ were sung with this tenor’s characteristic blend of understated passion and restrained candour.

 

You would have to live a long time before hearing a performance of Abraham and Isaac to touch this one: wonderfully supported again by Vignoles, Ainsley sang the part of Abraham in such a way as to render it hard to imagine anyone else equalling him, and what made the experience even more exceptional was that the role of Isaac was taken with a similarly rare eloquence and beauty of tone by the rising star Iestyn Davies. This work always brings Billy Budd to mind, and it needs a dramatic yet not over-operatic staging: here it was set with utter simplicity, the voices so confident and expressive that nothing more was needed. Ainsley’s Abraham is the ideal combination of paternal authority and tenderness; he never milks the lines for effect, but so nuanced and subtle is his singing that lines such as ‘Thou breakest my heart even in three’ and ‘Come hither my child, thou art so sweet’ cannot fail to move. Davies was the ideal Isaac: his youthful tone made his music especially poignant, and he was at one with Ainsley in his highly charged yet never overplayed interpretation: ‘Father, seeing you mustė needs do so / let it pass lightly, and over go;’ can hardly have left a dry eye in the house.

 

Still falls the Rain is a hugely demanding work, in which the central tenor voice is echoed by a horn soloist (Richard Watkins, characteristically eloquent) whilst reflecting upon Christ’s passion: Ainsley’s diction here was astonishing, every word blazing out, phrases such as ‘the tears of the hunted hare’ and the easily overplayed sprechgesang of ‘See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament;’ gripping in the extreme. The final Canticles, both settings of Eliot, were given no less powerful performances: in Journey of the Magi the three singers (Leigh Melrose the incisive baritone) gave characterful assumptions of the Desert kings – I found myself thinking of one of the songs my 8 year old has to sing as part of her ‘nativity’ play  - ‘We’re the guys with the camels, we’re the guys with the shades’ -  and in The Death of saint Narcissus the allusive poetry was finely embellished by Lucy Wakeford’s harp.

 

A great hour of music, and highly recommended to hear again on Tuesday’s Voices - Sunday night’s concert (including the ‘Holy Sonnets’ and the Blake songs) can be heard on the 6th, and Monday’s (Mark Padmore singing the Michelangelo sonnets and Winter Words, and the Nash Ensemble with Ian Bostridge in Les Illuminations and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings) are live on the day but presumably still available to hear for the rest of the week – all highly recommended.

 

 

Melanie Eskenazi


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)