Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam – Canticles

The Canticles:
Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine, Op.40
Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op.51
Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain, Op.55
Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86
Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89

Iestyn Davies (countertenor)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Leigh Melrose (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
Richard Watkins (horn)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 3 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

One of several Wigmore Hall recitals, under the collective title of “In Memoriam”, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s untimely death on 4 December 1976.

This one presented Britten’s five Canticles, which date from post-“Peter Grimes” (1947) to one of the composer’s final works (1974). Although Britten did not, as far as I know, intend them as a ‘cycle’, hearing them successively was instructive indeed and served to reinforce one’s admiration for Britten’s fecundity of musical invention and responsiveness of word-setting.

The impact was the stronger for thoroughly convincing performances, the constant feature of which was John Mark Ainsley’s remarkable delivery of music intended for Peter Pears. Ainsley was utterly authoritative in his own right, whether in the ‘solo’ pieces – Canticles 1, 3 and 5 – or in ensemble with comparably distinguished singers. I have not heard Ainsley sound so assured either live or on record. Singing entirely from memory, he has clearly absorbed the soundworld of this music and he projected it with confidence, eloquence and with scrupulous attention to the most minute of nuances – absolutely essential in this repertoire. Moreover, he made this music his ‘own’, not for a moment attempting to imitate the distinctive voice for whom it was composed.

Whilst the word ‘canticle’ is customarily associated with sacred music, Britten’s series of pieces bearing this title are most certainly not ‘liturgical’ in any sense. They have been described – most aptly – as ‘vocal chamber music’, and only the First, Second and Fourth have overtly religious sentiments or overtones. The First, in fact, is more like an extended love-song, the text, by Francis Quarles, ostensibly alluding to the biblical “Song of Songs”. It is surely an outpouring of affection from one to another – “I give him songs”; “That he is mine” are indisputably public statements – and brave ones – of the composer’s feelings towards Pears, the pair now firmly, if necessarily covertly, established as ‘partners’.

The Second is a the most extended and is, in effect, somewhat akin to an operatic scene, with dialogue between father and son and, most strikingly, the two voices combining twice to represent the ‘voice of God’. I was enormously impressed by countertenor Iestyn Davies, who made the character of Isaac (a part conceived for, and first performed by, Kathleen Ferrier) much more dynamic than is sometimes the case. And the blending of voices was extraordinarily moving, the ensemble and intonation being impeccable.

The horn, played by Richard Watkins, adds to the dark sonority which pervades “Still Falls the Rain”, a setting of a text by Edith Sitwell which was composed in memory of the young pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who had committed suicide in 1953. The brooding, troubled atmosphere was chillingly conveyed, with only a hint of consolation at the close when both instruments and voice combine for the first – and only – time.

The intertwining of the three voices in “Journey of the Magi” was magical in its impact. The three often sing ‘as one’, and the immaculate unanimity almost suggested a strange, composite voice-type – which was surely what Britten intended. Individually, the singers suggested personality and character.

No praise can be too high for the sensitivity of Roger Vignoles in these four canticles – one could admire anew the remarkable resourcefulness of Britten’s piano writing. Lucy Wakeford was no less convincing in the final piece. Britten is purported to have said: “I haven’t the remotest idea what it’s about”, though it touches on the theme which pervades his work – the corruption, or destruction, of youth and, implicitly, innocence. The music, in fact, hints that the demons of “Death in Venice” had not been fully exorcised. In his fine signing of sometimes rather tortuous lines, Ainsley suggested he might be an Aschenbach in the making.

The only drawback in this otherwise absorbing programme was the decision to allow for little pause between the canticles. I think one needs a moment or two of reflection; furthermore, members of the audience who coughed ensured that the magical opening of Canticle II was ruined.

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