> Benjamin Britten - The Canticles [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Canticles

My Beloved is Mine, Op.40 (1947)
Abraham and Isaac, Op.51 (1952)
Still Falls the Rain, Op.55 (1954)
Journey of the Magi, Op.86 (1971)
The Death of Narcissus, Op.89 (1974)
Folksong Arrangements

The Plough Boy; The Sally Gardens; The Foggy Dew; There’s none to soothe;
O Waly Waly; The Ash Grove; Greensleeves.

Ian Bostridge (tenor) David Daniels (countertenor) Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Timothy Brown (horn) Aline Brewer (harp) Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded at Air Studios, London, 11-17 September and 17 October 2001
VIRGIN CLASSICS VC 5 45525 2 [ 75.02]


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Britten’s five Canticles are marvellously vivid, intensely dramatic works. At least two of them could easily be staged, so evocative is their imagery. Given the composer’s genius with operatic form, this is really no surprise, and the artists on this disc certainly make the most of this inherent theatricality.

The works themselves form an effective sequence, even though they were written over a period of nearly thirty years. Each is in some way religiously inspired and takes the form of an extended song, scena, miniature cantata or even, in the case of Abraham and Isaac, virtually a mini opera. The vocal writing throughout all the pieces, even the earliest, is remarkably varied and assured, and the accompaniments, even when it is piano alone, are astonishingly inventive. As with all Britten’s major works, the composer himself, together with his trusted artistic circle, has recorded the benchmark version. In the present case, it is a mid-price Decca London issue featuring Peter Pears, James Bowman, John Shirley-Quirke, Barry Tuckwell and Osian Ellis, a formidable line-up by any standards. Nevertheless, the artists on this new Virgin disc form what might be termed the ‘new generation’ of Britten interpreters, and with wonderfully vivid, clear digital sound, there is much to recommend it.

My own feeling is that Abraham and Isaac is the greatest of the five, maybe because of the sheer scale of dramatic intensity packed into a mere 17 minutes. Its subject, the sacrifice of a child, would always be likely to appeal to Britten’s sensibilities – pity for the plight of children was one of his deepest feelings. Daniels delivers with devastating simplicity the words "Father, do with me as you will" as he submits to his father’s will and, of course, deliberately foreshadows Christ’s words on Gethsemane. Though written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, I have always felt the piece works better with two male singers, not least in the strikingly original opening, where both soloists, intoning in close harmony, evoke the voice of God himself. This moment mightily impressed Stravinsky, and Britten was to use the device again ten years later in the War Requiem. Bostridge and Daniels are noted for their superb enunciation, and no moment, however fleeting, is missed. Praise too for Julius Drake, Bostridge’s regular partner, who underpins proceedings with real sensitivity and, where required, fingers of steel – listen to the earthquake-like bass rumblings at 12.40. as Abraham is about to kill his own son.

Bostridge sings with the same customary sensitivity and warmth of phrasing in My Beloved is Mine, and the contributions of Timothy Brown (in Still Falls the Rain) and Aline Brewer (in The Death of Narcissus) are as musicianly as one could hope for. The wonderful blending of Bostridge, Daniels and Christopher Maltman in Journey of the Magi make for an uplifting experience, and the spiritual mystery and questioning of Eliot’s text is vividly realised.

The last 18 minutes of this generous disc is given over to the three singers performing a decent selection of the folksong settings. Many Britten collectors will no doubt have their own favourite artists in these delightful miniatures, but it’s hard not to respond favourably to the present interpretations. The Sally Gardens has Maltman clearly enjoying himself, and Bostridge’s appropriate simplicity of utterance in The Ash Grove is most moving. The most original feature of these settings, the wonderfully quirky accompaniments, shows us Drake’s real abilities as a partner – nothing is forced, everything beautifully weighted and judged.

Recording quality, as mentioned above, is exemplary, and there are very full and readable notes from Dr. John Evans. Full texts are provided. To my ears, a very worthwhile addition to the Britten discography.

Tony Haywood

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