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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Benjamin BRITTEN (1813-1976)
My Beloved is Mine [7:36]
Abraham and Isaac [16:39]
The Death of Saint Narcissus [8:14]
Journey of the Magi [12:35]
Still falls the Rain – The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn [13:27]
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor)
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Richard Watkins (horn)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 30 November 2012
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLive0064 [59:23]

Britten’s Canticles serve as the perfect complement to his larger scale works because they deal with many of the same themes as the operas or the War Requiem. My beloved is mine is surely at least as much about Britten’s erotic love for Pears as it is about the soul’s love for God. Abraham and Isaac deals with the theme of innocence in the same way as Billy Budd or The Turn of the Screw. Still falls the rain expresses the themes of pacifism that were to preoccupy Britten throughout his life. Consequently, these five pieces, none of them more than 17 minutes long, tap into a rich vein of the composer’s world and, as such, drew some of his best music from him.
They were written for Pears originally, but Padmore is a perfect choice for this repertoire. His rich, full voice (which I haven’t always loved in Britten) is so suitable because it combines both drama and poetry. He does so triumphantly in My beloved is mine. Listen to the way he moves from the drama of “all those glittering monarchs” to the gentle wistfulness of “He is my altar”. Drake’s accompaniment provides all the commentary we need to fill in every detail of mood.
Drake is also the star of Abraham and Isaac, the finest thing on the disc, because it falls to him to paint the mood of each section. This is something he does brilliantly from the business-like mood of father and son preparing for sacrifice, through to the drama of the revelation of the victim, the terrifying climax of the sacrifice itself, then God’s nick-of-time intervention and the blissfully serene close. This canticle is a real masterpiece, effectively an opera in miniature, and with Drake at the keyboard, who needs an orchestra? Padmore is joined here by Iestyn Davies who plays Isaac’s role with slightly too many histrionics for my taste, but who blends beautifully with Padmore’s tenor to create a wonderfully serene ending. They are especially good – spine-tinglingly so, in fact – when they combine to produce the voice of God: tellingly, they face away from the audience (and microphone) for these passages, and the effect is brilliant.
Their blend is intentionally much more abrasive at the opening of Journey of the Magi, and Marcus Farnsworth’s baritone helps to provide more variety as the three Magi seem to argue among themselves in the early section of the poem. The distinctive, often unpleasant harmonies of this canticle work their spell through evoking the Magi’s discomfort, as well as hinting at the deeper spiritual message. The switch to unison at the central point of revelation is a masterstroke, and the blend of the three singers reflects this throughout with the greatest skill. Again, Drake’s piano provides the subtlest, most reflective of accompaniments.
The Death of Saint Narcissus conjures up a very different sound-world. Padmore’s voice blends with Lucy Wakeford’s harp in a way that is sometimes playful, sometimes delicate, sometimes deliberately evasive, but it’s always interesting and often exciting to listen to. Eliot’s rather obscure poetry – Britten himself admitted he had no idea what it was about – inspires the composer to provide a real potpourri of different types of music, belying the fact that he wrote it in his final years after his heart operation.
The opening of Still falls the rain is both beautiful and mysterious, but retains a hint of the sinister. The poem compares the raids of the Blitz to Christ’s passion, so the setting is rather spiky. Padmore finds the most poignant register of his voice to evoke the pity of the words. Richard Watkins’ horn is placed at just the right distance to comment without dominating. The effect of the final lines makes this a very fitting choice to conclude the whole disc.
The booklet contains essays about the music, as well as personal comments from both Padmore and Davies, together with the printed English texts. Even though it’s a live recording, the audience is so well behaved that you would never guess, until the burst of well-deserved applause at the end of the final track.
Simon Thompson

Britten discography & review index: Canticles