06 Dec 2012
Britten: The Canticles
‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.
As part of this year’s tribute to Benjamin Britten the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists recently gave several performances of the composer’s War Requiem.
In its ongoing celebration of Verdi’s centennial year, the Los Angeles Opera offered a new production of Falstaff, the composer’s last and most brilliant opera — brilliant in every scintillating, sparkling sense of the word.
Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.
Acis and Galatea was one of Handel’s most popular works, frequently revived in his life time and beyond.
German tenor Werner Güra, who has made a speciality of the German lieder repertoire, opened this recital at the Wigmore Hall with Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, the composer’s only song cycle and the first significant example of the form.
It’s been renamed “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” it hails itself as “The American Musical” and further qualifies itself as “The Porgy and Bess for the Twenty-First Century.”
Richard Wagner wrote: "The voyage through the Norwegian reefs made a wonderful impression on my imagination; the legend of the Flying Dutchman, which the sailors verified, took on a distinctive, strange coloring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”
‘If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?’
On Remembrance Sunday, Semyon Bychkov conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall with Roderick Williams, Allan Clayton, Sabrina Cvilak, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and choristers of Westminster Abbey.
The mantle of tenor Peter Pears’ legacy hung heavily over his immediate ‘successors’, as they performed music that had been composed by Benjamin Britten for the man to whom he avowed, ‘I write every note with your heavenly voice in my head’.
One year since the launch of their project to create a contemporary book of Italians madrigals, vocal ensemble Exaudi returned to the Wigmore Hall to present an intermingling of old and new madrigals which was typically inventive, virtuosic and compelling.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Coliseum could give the ENO a welcome boost.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.
Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, based on Gogol’s short story of the same name, was a smash hit for the Metropolitan Opera company in 2010 and once again, this season.
There might not be much ‘Serenissima’ about Yoshi Oida’s 2007 production of Death in Venice — it’s more Japanese minimalism than Venetian splendour — but there is still plenty to admire, as this excellent revival by Opera North as part of its centennial celebration, Festival of Britten, underlines.
With an absorbing production of Peter Grimes and a freshly spontaneous La bohème, Canadian Opera Company has set the bar very high indeed for its current season.
Whatever you think of some of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent productions, you cannot fault the Gelb administration for fearing to take risks.
The lustreless white tiles of the laboratory which forms the set of Keith Warner’s pitiless staging of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck offer little respite — cold, hard, rigid and severe, they are a material embodiment of the bleakness and barrenness of the tragic events which will be played out within the workshop walls (sets by Stefanos Lazaridis).
At this year’s Wexford Festival — the 62nd operatic gathering in this small south-eastern Irish town - the trio of operas on show present many a wretched battle between duty and desire.
At the heart of this Wigmore Hall recital were two sacred vocal works for solo countertenor and small instrumental forces, recently recorded by Florilegium and Robin Blaze to considerable critical acclaim: J.S. Bach’s cantata ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’.
‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.
‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance. The five Canticles span his career: the first dates from 1947, two years after the celebrated premiere of Peter Grimes; the last was composed in 1974, two years before the composer’s death. Britten’s texts are complex conceptually, semantically and syntactically. But, underpinning all five works is the blend of the spiritual, public and personal which characterises so much of the composer’s work.
This concert — which forms part of a three-week series of concerts celebrating Britten’s chamber music in anticipation of the composer’s centenary year in 2013, and also belongs to the series ‘A Singularity of Voice’, the title of countertenor Iestyn Davies’ residency at the Hall — presented a rare opportunity to hear the complete cycle of five works.
‘My beloved is mine’ is a musical meditation on a single line from the Song of Solomon, translated by the seventeenth-century poet Francis Quarles. Britten dedicated the work, and his choice of text, to Dick Sheppard who had been a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, and at whose Memorial Concert in Westminster Central Hall it was first heard.
It is concentrated and quietly ecstatic, and tenor Mark Padmore immediately captured its quality of rapturous ethereality, the sparse airiness of the opening, with voice and piano moving discursively in diverging registers, increasingly enlivened by sudden injections of elated energy. Padmore’s searching melismas and the oriental tint of the Julius Drake’s piano accompaniment cohered to create a sense of distance and ‘strangeness’. After the recitative-like clarity of the central section, Padmore’s declamatory precision, which was punctuated by fragmentary piano interjections, gave way to more lyrical reflection — “He is my altar, I his holy place” — a low, syncopated piano gesture adding resonance and substance to the text: “He’s my supporting elm and I his vine;/ Thus I my best beloved’s am/ Thus he is mine.”
Padmore was joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies in the second canticle, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, a more dramatic work which enacts a variation on Britten’s favoured theme, the destruction of innocence. Recitative and aria alternate to create a single condensed structure, and the performers produced a seamless dramatic entity, the musical and dramatic climaxes cohering with impact. Turning their backs on the audience, Padmore and Davies intoned God’s words to Abraham instructing him to slay his son, Isaac, in sacrifice to his deity: their rhythmic homophony was unwavering but retained a touching translucency, a spiritual organum whose dissonances were both delicate and piercing. Padmore articulated Abraham’s responding recitative with warmth and intensity; turning to his son to explain his task, the tenor employed a clear, ringing high register which conveyed Abraham’s faith and resolution. In contrast, the vibrato-less purity of Davies’ trusting reply, “Father, I am all ready/ To do your bidding most meekëly”, set against Drake’s portentous staccato bass, was poignantly open and naïve.
As the sacrifice approached, Drake’s tremulous accompaniment enhanced the thrilling rhythmic dynamism which accrued, climaxing in a moment of astonishing and tense stillness, as Isaac, accepting his fate, asks for his father’s blessing. The leaping octaves of Davies’ unaccompanied line betrayed the equivocal emotions of the young boy, at once both steadfast and fearful, while his plea, “Father, do with me as you will”, was affectingly eloquent. Preparing to do God’s will, Padmore created a terrifying intensity, underlined by Drake’s disturbing bass pedals, climaxing in an apocalyptic tumult. Spared by a God in whom Abraham has demonstrated absolute faith, father and son join in an ‘Envoi’ of gentle counterpoint and consonance, Drake’s closing gesture creating a sense of integration and sweetness.
Electing to perform the Canticles out of sequence, the performers now delivered a startling change of mood, following such melodious resolution with the sparse sombreness of the fifth Canticle, a setting of T.S. Eliot’s early poem, ‘The Death of Narcissus’, which mediates on spiritual and creative striving and vision. Britten dedicated his setting to the writer William Plomer, his librettist of Gloriana and the church parables. The unique syntax of the text, and its oblique meaning, must have presented Britten with many challenges; his style here, and in the ‘The Journey of the Magi’, is concentrated in response to the multifarious nuances and strong cadences of Eliot’s poetry.
Padmore was joined by harpist Lucy Wakeford in an enigmatic performance. With characteristic alertness to the capacities and potentialities of particular instruments, Britten drew on the distinctive reverberations and harmonic resonances of the harp to create a mood of ambiguity and inscrutability. Here, the focused sobriety of the opening — “I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs. And the gray shadow on his lips” — enlarged into an energetic and expansive array of colours exploiting the harp’s full arc and scope: “First he was sure that he had been a tree,/ Twisting its branches among each other/And tangling its roots among each other. Wakeford’s articulation was simultaneously precise and sweeping; Padmore brought a dark mystery and sensuousness to his low range: “Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He danced on the hot sand.” In the final lines, “Now he is green, dry and stained/ With the shadow in his mouth”, Padmore’s ghostly modal ascent diminished into insubstantiality, while the harp’s sparing octaves dissolved into the air.
The journeying motif is present in all of the three last Canticles. Another setting of Eliot, the fourth Canticle, ‘Journey of the Magi’, explores the difficulty of grasping the significance of Christ’s birth, as the three Magi make their arduous journey through the desolate desert. Following an urgent, dissonant piano rumbling, the crisp rhythms of Padmore, Davies and baritone Marcus Farnsworth conveyed the energy of departure, the vocal close harmony underpinned by the lively punctuation of Drake’s accompanying ostinato. A boisterous vigour was conjured, “With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow”, the precisely delivered homophony suggesting a unity of thinking among the travellers.
Such sense of purposefulness was disturbed however by a prevailing unease, which erupts in Eliot’s final stanza, when the Magi reach their destination. Eliot is resentful and aggrieved: “I had seen birth and death/, But had thought they were different.” The singers’ focused, perfectly blended unison enhanced the sense of disturbance and fear, for the men will return to their Kingdoms of “alien people clutching their gods”. At this point, Britten introduces the plainchant ‘Magi videntes stellam’ in the piano and Drake relished the clanging strangeness which suggests the troubling disquiet of those who, so changed by what they have witnessed, “should be glad of another death”.
The recital closed with ‘Still Falls the Rain’, a setting of text from ‘The Canticle of the Rose’ by Edith Sitwell. This third Canticle was written following the suicide of Britten’s close friend Noel Mewton-Wood, and was first performed at the Wigmore Hall in January 1955 by the composer, Peter Pears and Dennis Brain. Padmore, perhaps inspired equally by the work’s history and Britten’s genius, rose to extraordinary heights of musical expression and discerning perceptivity, accompanied by the astonishingly sensitive horn playing of Richard Watkins.
Mimicking the variation structure of The Turn of the Screw, the work which immediately preceded it, this Canticle never settles, by turns expansive then austere, rhetorical and then reserved. Watkins exploited every timbre available, while Padmore found an astonishing range of colours in response to the nuances of the text, as exemplified by the startling change of tone from beauty to anger in the opening unaccompanied lines. Tempo was used to convey unrest, the staccato piano accompaniment and horn counterpoint indicative of the disturbing knowledge of man’s guilt: “the small hopes breed and the human brain/ Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.” Nowhere was the mood more despairing and angry than Padmore’s half-spoken outburst, “O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune — ?”, a quotation from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. The veiled quality of the tenor’s subsequent reflection on man’s human heart, “dark-smirched with pain/ As Caesar’s laurel crown”, painfully deepened the anguish.
Sitwell’s poem bears the subtitle, ‘The Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn’; she presents images from the Passion to reassure man of the continuing existence of God in a world torn apart by man’s inhumanity. If there had been any questioning about the non-chronological ordering of the Canticles, they were dispelled by the heartrendingly breathtaking close, voice and horn ultimately united in a brief but blissful moment of transcendence and reconciliation, the horn’s pianissimo almost unimaginably hushed: “’Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.’”
Britten claimed that the canticles were ‘a new invention in a sense although modelled on Purcell’s Divine Hymns’ . Here, surely, was music divine.
Wigmore Hall, London Friday 30th November 2012
Britten: The Canticles
Iestyn Davies countertenor Mark Padmore tenor Marcus Farnsworth baritone Richard Watkins horn Lucy Wakeford harp Julius Drake piano Britten
Canticle I: My beloved is mine Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain — the Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus