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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Canticle I, op.40 – My Beloved is Mine [7:11]
Canticle II, Op.51 – Abraham and Isaac [16:10]
The Heart of the Matter (rev. Peter Pears, 1983) [24:56]
Canticle III, Op.55 – Still Falls the Rain [11:31]
Canticle IV, Op.86 – Journey of the Magi [10:50]
Canticle V, Op. 89 – The Death of Saint Narcissus
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, on 19-20, 23-24 March 1996. Narrations recorded at Floating Earth, on May 16th 1996

This CD is another Naxos re-issue of recordings originally available on the Collins label in the 1990s. This source has already brought us a feast of Britten recordings, including Steuart Bedford’s "Turn of the Screw" and Felicity Lott’s superb "Les Illuminations". So it is exciting to be able to report that the present issue meets the same very high standards.

This is a beautifully devised programme of music, taking us through the five canticles – chamber cantatas really – which span the composer’s entire career. Their progress is interrupted with Peter Pears’ 1983 revision of "The Heart of the Matter". This sequence of poems by Edith Sitwell encloses Canticle III, "Still Falls the Rain", a setting of her moving war poem, "The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn", and includes both musical settings and readings, which are performed here by Dame Judi Dench.

Philip Langridge, the element common to all the works, is in fine voice throughout, and sings with that mixture of passion and virtuosity which makes his interpretations so memorable. He gives a great sweep and, when required, tenderness to the first Canticle, "My Beloved is Mine", a setting of a love poem by 17th century writer Francis Quarles. The final couplet, which resolves the song’s extravagant emotions into a simple repetitive croon, is utterly magical.

A portion of the Chester Miracle play that tells the story of Abraham and Isaac forms the text for Canticle II. Listeners who know the "War Requiem" will recognise much of this music from the Offertorium of that work. The producers here have cunningly enhanced the piece by distancing the soloists for the opening passage where God speaks to Abraham. Jean Rigby, with her unaffected yet highly expressive singing, joins Langridge, with Steuart Bedford again the sensitive pianist.

Canticle III, a setting of an Edith Sitwell World War 2 poem, includes an important part for horn, played with great accomplishment by Frank Lloyd. The first performance, given in 1955 at the Wigmore Hall by Britten, Pears and Dennis Brain, so delighted the author that she collaborated with Britten on a work for the following year’s Aldeburgh Festival. This emerged as "The Heart of the Matter", as described above, which was then revised by Pears, with different readings, after the composer’s death. The reader here is Dame Judi Dench, who delivers them splendidly, though, given the nature of the recording, could I feel have gone for a shade more intimacy – she is very declamatory in her approach.

The T.S. Eliot poem that is the basis of Canticle IV of 1971 is among his best-known, and inspired Britten to one of his most atmospheric vocal works. His idea was to characterise the three kings sharply by choosing the three types of adult male voice – counter-tenor, tenor and baritone. The original singers were James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, and, though their great recording with the composer at the piano could never be bettered, Langridge, Derek Lee Ragin and Gerald Finley give a fine account. For the final Canticle, "The Death of Narcissus", one of the composer’s final works, Philip Langridge is joined by the harpist Osian Ellis. This is a great bonus for the recording, for Ellis worked extensively with Britten, and he gave the premiere of the work, which was composed for him and Pears. This canticle belongs stylistically to the same world as, for example, "Death in Venice", with the harp here used as an agent of colour and atmosphere rather than as a textural or harmonic support to the voice.

This is a very fine recording of some of the most exquisite vocal music of the past century, and enshrines the work of so many fine artists. Impossible to recommend it too highly.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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