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
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.
Britten discography & review index: Canticles