Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Bernarda Fink Sings Mahler Lieder

Bernarda Fink’s recording of Gustav Mahler’s Lieder is an important new release that includes outstanding performances of the composer’s well-known songs, along with compelling readings of some less-familiar ones.

Gergiev’s Das Rheingold

Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

Hänsel und Gretel

This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.

Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing

Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Amore e Tormento

Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’ 

Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.

In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi. 

Verdi at the Old MET

With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.

Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re

In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions. 

Così fan tutte from DG

Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790. 

Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber

During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.

Adriana Lecouvreur from Decca

Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.

Lawrence Brownlee’s Spiritual Sketches

It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.

Great Wagner Conductors from DG

As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.

Great Wagner Singers from DG

There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.

Adding Movie Magic to The Magic Flute

What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?

L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Virgin Classics

Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity. 

Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro

Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.

Christian Thielemann’s Der Ring des Nibelungen

Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation. 

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

08 Mar 2005

BRITTEN: Canticles I–V, The Heart of the Matter

Benjamin Britten is usually thought of as a musical dramatist on a large, operatic scale, but the instinct (or perhaps the inner necessity) to capture psychological conflict in music burst through in his smaller musical forms as well. His five canticles (not to be confused with the church parables) mirror Britten’s artistic growth in his operas and other large-scale works from the late 1940s until shortly before his death.

Benjamin Britten: Canticles I-V, The Heart of the Matter
Philip Langridge, tenor; Jean Rigby, alto; Derek Lee Ragin, countertenor; Gerald Finley, baritone; Dame Judi Dench, speaker; Steuart Bedford, piano; Osian Ellis, harp
Naxos 8.557202 [CD]

Benjamin Britten is usually thought of as a musical dramatist on a large, operatic scale, but the instinct (or perhaps the inner necessity) to capture psychological conflict in music burst through in his smaller musical forms as well. His five canticles (not to be confused with the church parables) mirror Britten's artistic growth in his operas and other large-scale works from the late 1940s until shortly before his death.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "canticle" as "A song, properly a little song; a hymn" and secondarily as a hymn used on a recurring basis in church services. Britten didn't draw upon the Scriptures for the texts of his canticles, which resemble cantatas more than church hymns in scale and structure, but an intense religious spirit pervades them all.

Canticle I, My Beloved Is Mine, sets a text by the early-seventeenth-century Royalist poet Francis Quarles for tenor (originally composed for Britten's partner Peter Pears, of course) and piano. An interesting aspect of this canticle is the singer's references to a male lover ("So I my best beloved's am, So he is mine!" -- these words taken from the Song of Solomon). It has been assumed that Britten was expressing his feelings for Pears (publicly in 1947!) through the piece, especially its lovely ending, with the singer confident of his place in his lover's heart.

Britten biographer Humphrey Carpenter (who passed away recently) notes that Britten composed some of the canticles immediately after completion of an opera--in the case of Canticle I, Albert Herring -- forming an epilogue to the opera. The first scene of Herring has text taken from the same chapter of the Bible as Quarles drew upon, and of course Albert's sexual anxieties are relieved by the end of the opera, much as Britten's seem to be here. I think these pieces should more correctly be called pendants (quoting the OED again: "An additional statement, consideration, etc., which completes or complements another"; a companion piece) to the operas that precede them.

Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, for tenor, alto (premiered by Kathleen Ferrier), and piano, is probably the most familiar of the set, as Britten reused parts of it in his War Requiem. Britten drew upon the Chester Miracle Play version of the story and turns the confrontation between Abraham and God into a true operatic scena. God (sung in a high union by the tenor and alto) and man are far apart here -- God in the key of E-flat, Abraham in the key of A -- but by the end God and man are reconciled in a hushed Be-still-and know-that-I-am-God E-flat major. Carpenter suggests that Canticle II forms a companion piece to the recently completed Billy Budd, as Melville's novella compares Vere's feeling for Billy to Abraham's for Isaac when he is commanded to sacrifice him.

Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain, sets a poem by Dame Edith Sitwell, "The Raids 1940. Night and Dawn," for tenor, horn, and piano. The most overtly religious text among the five canticles, this piece, achingly beautiful in its anguish, followed closely upon the completion of The Turn of the Screw and uses a similar twelve-note theme and variation technique. Britten set this canticle into a larger-scale work for the 1956 Aldeburgh Festival that he called The Heart of the Matter. In this adaptation, recorded here for the first time in a revision by Pears after the composer's death, Britten surrounds the canticle with readings from other Sitwell works (read here by Dame Judi Dench) and a sung prologue, song ("We Are the Darkness in the Heat of Day"), and sung epilogue. The additional musical numbers can't be said to stand up against most of the songs in Britten's oeuvre, but they are attractive in context here.

Canticle IV, The Journey of the Magi, breaks new ground in the canticles by using three voices: countertenor, tenor, and baritone, with piano. A setting of the T. S. Eliot poem, it echoes the themes of religious questioning in the previous two canticles as the wise men, years after their journey to Bethlehem, ponder the significance of what they had seen there. In this recording the exquisite Derek Lee Ragin sings the countertenor part; one can't imagine a more perfectly realized performance. The magical ending, as the three voices weave aethereal harmonies, must be much like what Prospero heard as Ariel kept watch over his island.

In the fifth canticle, The Death of Saint Narcissus, Britten returned to Eliot, this time a very early work of his aesthetic period. Here again we have a pendant to a just completed opera, Death in Venice. Narcissus is a "dancer before God"; of course, dance plays an important structural role in Britten's opera. Like Aschenbach, Narcissus is obsessed with beauty (namely, his own) and seeks out death. In this last of the canticles, Britten relies on harp accompaniment for the tenor, though it is more a harp commentary than an accompaniment.

Other recordings of the complete canticles precede this one, including one by Britten and Pears for Decca, one with Ian Bostridge (David Daniels singing Isaac in Canticle II) on Virgin Classics, and one with Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Michael Chance singing Isaac) on Hyperion. The new recording is notable on several counts, not least the elegant singing of Philip Langridge. The texts for the two Eliot poems aren't included, but they are hardly needed in Canticle V, Langridge's diction is so superb. Accompanists should never be slighted: Steuart Bedford and Osian Ellis (who premiered Canticle V) are first-rate partners, as are Dench, Ragin, alto Jean Rigby, and baritone Gerald Finley. This recording is the one to buy if you don't already own a recording of the canticles (and one to buy even if you do): most of all for the superb performances, but also the performance of Canticle II with a female alto as Britten conceived it and the expanded setting of Canticle III.

David Anderson

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):