Britten’s Complete Canticles – 19 October

Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74 (1965) ***
Folk-song settings (1941-42): There’s none to soothe; Sweet Polly Oliver; O Waly, Waly; Oliver Cromwell **
No.1 My beloved is mine, Op.40 (1947)
No.2 Abraham and Isaac, Op.51 (1952)
No.3 Still falls the rain, Op.55 (1954)
No.4 The Journey of the Magi, Op.86 (1971)
No.5 The Death of St Narcissus, Op.89 (1974)

Ian Bostridge (tenor)
David Daniels (counter-tenor) **
Christopher Maltman (baritone) ***
Timothy Brown (horn)
Skaila Kanga (harp)
Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Reviewed: 19 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles (1947-1974) were not conceived as a unity. Ian Bostridge, wearing the mantle of Peter Pears, was in perfect voice and had no difficulty in giving the whole of them straight off, a feat of endurance as well as one of interpretative excellence. During the heyday of the Pears/Britten alliance there was a myth current to suggest that no other musicians would be able to do justice to this music, which Britten composed for his partner in life and in music-making.

Christopher Maltman proved an ideal interpreter of the deeply serious Blake settings, his ample voice strongly communicative to fill the Barbican. They had been memorably introduced and recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for whom they were composed [Decca 417 428-2]. Julius Drake accompanied here and throughout in a manner that Britten would have approved, the Fazioli giving just the right sound. David Daniels does not sound quite right (to my ears) for the folk songs nor was he intense enough to depict young Isaac on the point of being sacrificed. Timothy Brown, diligent but rather muted, failed to eclipse the anger and vehemence which Dennis Brain found in Britten’s response to the 1940 air raids, Still Falls the Rain.

Bostridge has certainly made this oeuvre his own, and sounded better live than in the studio recordings. Best, perhaps, were the solo canticles, My beloved is mine and The Death of Narcissus.With hindsight, after more than half a century, the ostensibly religious Quarles text of the first canticle (I attended its first performance at Friends House in 1947) has a very different feeling! The final one, with harp accompaniment – Britten could no longer play the piano publicly following heart surgery – made a poignant ending to the evening.

This concert evoked memories spanning many decades, movingly so for one who had worked on each of the song sets at the piano as they were published (I had coached my small son towards presenting Blake’s The Chimney-Sweeper and The Fly for a Peter Pears Master Class). The Canticles have recently been recorded by these artists, who undertook the ritual signing of their CD after the concert [Virgin Classics 5 45525 2]. I had a few reservations about their recorded performances, preferring those by Peter Pears with the composer, especially their first of Abraham & Isaac with Norma Proctor. Britten’s own Canticle performances are on Decca 425 716-2.

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