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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The Canticles
Canticle I, Op. 40, My Beloved is Mine (1947) [7:11]; Canticle II, Op. 51, Abraham and Isaac (1952) [16:10]; The Heart of the Matter (rev. Peter Pears, 1983) and Canticle III, Op. 55, Still Falls the Rain (1954) [24:56]; Canticle IV, Op. 86, Journey of the Magi (1971) [10:50]; Canticle V, Op. 89, The Death of Narcissus (1974) [7:39]
Philip Langridge (tenor); Jean Rigby (contralto); Gerald Finley (baritone); Derek Lee Ragin (counter-tenor); Dame Judi Dench (narrator); Steuart Bedford (piano); Frank Lloyd (horn); Osian Ellis (harp).
Recorded at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 19-20, 23-24 March 1996; narrations recorded at Floating Earth, 16 May 1996,
First issued on Collins Classics in 1996
NAXOS 8.557202 [66’47"]

This attractive set of Britten’s five Canticles is worth acquiring not only for its musical worth, but also for its value as a snapshot of the intimate vehicles he wrote throughout his life with Peter Pears in mind. The Canticles are sparely written, sketched from emotional, striking texts that the singers present with minimal instrumental accompaniment.

The first is the shortest, and was written for the tenth anniversary of the death of Dick Sheppard (1880-1937), a minister who founded the Peace Pledge Union. The touching text is by poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644), who was inspired by the Song of Solomon. The flowing vocal line and piano part eventually give way to some canonic interplay, and then the work ends in simplicity. With great sensitivity, Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford establish right away that this is a recording to savor.

The second Canticle is taken from a Chester Miracle Play called Histories of Lot and Abraham, and was originally performed by Pears and Kathleen Ferrier. The hushed, somber opening eventually becomes more florid. Langridge is joined here by Jean Rigby, and both sing with wonderful ardor, intertwining with each other in heartfelt lyricism. Bedford’s piano rises to the occasion in dramatic form as the singers intone, "to this deed I am sorrye." As the piece closes, the singers join together to depict the voice of God, heard softly in the distance.

Number 3 is dedicated to Noel Mewton-Wood, an Australian pianist who committed suicide. Interestingly, the Canticle was eventually embedded in a larger work, The Heart of the Matter, and Peter Pears revised the entire scene in 1983, into its present form. Using "Still Falls the Rain" by Edith Sitwell, the piece bears some resemblance in its texture to Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, composed just prior to this work. Frank Lloyd contributes a ripe horn tone, blooming around the voice of the wonderful Dame Judi Dench, who is in fine form in the prominent spoken parts. One minor caveat: of the five Canticles, I found this one perhaps the most difficult to listen to when one is in the mood for music. It’s altogether lovely, but with the prominent spoken parts, it’s more like attending a poetry reading, albeit one given by an unusually capable actor.

The fourth uses a well-known poem by T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi, which features Langridge with Gerald Finley and Derek Lee Ragin in a mellifluous blend as the singers portray the three wise men, doubting themselves years after their journey in search of Christ. Bedford sounds particularly wonderful here, when at the climax, he delivers a moving plainchant in the piano part. The harmonies have a hesitant, tenuous quality, reflecting the three men’s questioning and doubts.

The Death of Saint Narcissus, the fifth and final work, has an unusually sober tone and perhaps the most transparent texture of the lot, with the voice accompanied solely by harp. Here the instrumentalist is the superb Osian Ellis, for whom the piece was originally written. The text’s slightly masochistic language, also by Eliot, is as piercing as the arrows that bring down the title character.

What these works share is an unusually spare texture. Throughout the five works, Philip Langridge sings with glowing intimacy, accompanied by Steuart Bedford in outstanding form on the piano. The recorded sound is excellent, with a slight resonance adding presence to the artists’ intimacy. My only serious complaint is that the booklet is somewhat strangely edited, omitting the texts to the fourth and fifth Canticles completely – particularly regrettable given the high quality of the words. However, Langridge’s diction is so clear that English-speaking listeners can still grasp the texts. But overall, this is a recommendable recording for those who are inclined toward these unusually intense works, and certainly fans of either the singer or the pianist/conductor should not hesitate.

Bruce Hodges

see also review by Gwyn Parry-Jones


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