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Performances

Benjamin Britten
06 Dec 2012

Britten: The Canticles

‘Canticle’ is the term Britten used to denote an extended setting of a text of spiritual substance.

Britten: The Canticles

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Benjamin Britten

 

‘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.

Claire Seymour

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

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