Benjamin Britten: The Canticles [Ben Johnson & James Baillieu; Signum Classics]

0 of 5 stars

Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine, Op.40 [tenor and piano]
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op.51 [countertenor, tenor and piano]
Canticle III: Still falls the Rain – The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn, Op.55 [tenor, horn and piano]
Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86 [countertenor, tenor, baritone and piano]
Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89 [tenor and harp]

Ben Johnson (tenor) & James Baillieu (piano) with Christopher Ainslie (countertenor), Benedict Nelson (baritone), Martin Owen (horn) & Lucy Wakeford (harp)

Recorded 11-13 April 2012 in BBC Maida Vale Studio 2, London

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: June 2013
Duration: 56 minutes



The fourth generation of Britten tenors, now well into its stride, is probably the first to escape entirely from the shadow cast by Peter Pears that slanted early perceptions not only of Philip Langridge and Robert Tear but even (albeit to a lesser extent) the ‘new venerables’ such as Mark Padmore and John Mark Ainsley.

Though I risk perpetuating the very attitude I’m pleased to see fading away, occasionally Ben Johnson (who studied with Pears’s pupil, Neil Mackie) reminds me instead of the great Welsh tenor, Richard Lewis. The Italianate edge to his voice, which served him so well in his recent Donizetti and Verdi outings with English National Opera, rings out in the opening stanzas of Canticle I (My Beloved Is Mine) as he embarks on an interpretation of Francis Quarles’s mystic text that is tender, prayerful and entirely devoid of mannerisms. The tone is thereby set for probing accounts of the five Canticles that in four cases at least are close to ideal.

The other two solo-voice Canticles are similarly marked by fine diction and vocal beauty as well as an interpretational depth that comes as no surprise given the perceptive nature of Johnson’s own booklet note. In Canticle III (Still Falls the Rain) he brings out the contrast between Britten’s ascetic vocal line and the eloquent accompaniment for horn and piano (superbly played by Martin Owen and James Baillieu respectively, the latter proving to be a most sensitive and restrained accompanist throughout the first four pieces). In Canticle V (The Death of Saint Narcissus) the “dancer before God” all but takes physical form in Lucy Wakeford’s exquisite playing of the loose-limbed harp accompaniment. Shades of Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, perhaps? It could almost be “Tadzio’s Liebestod”.

Where the tenor is joined by other voices, fortunes are more mixed. The performance of Canticle IV is a small triumph as a distinct winter chill is carried forth in the close harmonies of the three well-matched voices (Christopher Ainslie and Benedict Nelson are Johnson’s admirable fellow-travellers) while Baillieu’s piano trudges on like the journeying boy of Britten’s song-cycle, Winter Words. Britten’s triple-narrator idea is consciously less ‘enacted’ than it sometimes is – a shrewd decision given that The Journey of the Magi is a memory piece. T. S. Eliot’s wise men are storytellers, not players, as we are reminded when they break off from their fireside yarn-spinning to instruct an unseen recorder to “Set down this”.

Canticle II begins with a sublime ‘voice of God’ effect in which countertenor and tenor blend as one. The problem, though, is that Ainslie is markedly less suited to personifying Isaac than he is the Magus of the later work. Something is surely amiss when Isaac sounds like Oberon, and the splendid masculinity of Ainslie’s timbre does little to suggest the innocent child of the Chester Miracle Play. He fails to locate the boy’s childishness at potentially heart-rending moments such as the innocent question to his father, “Where is the beast that we shall kill?”. Although Britten himself anticipated that Isaac would be sung by a woman or a boy alto, the role can certainly be made effective by a countertenor – as David Daniels, in his more overtly dramatic recording with Ian Bostridge (Virgin Classics), ably demonstrates.

Not so many years ago the Canticles were each an unloved Cinderella of the Britten canon, yet nowadays they must are among his most performed and recorded works for the voice. How times change. For the most part this rewarding, superbly engineered new version offers exceptional insights and degrees of beauty. Amid exalted company this excellently recorded release stands tall. The booklet includes the texts.

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