Wednesday 6 March 2013

Singing of exquisite control and sensitivity from Ben Johnson in a new release of Britten’s Canticles on Signum Classics

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his five Canticles over much of the mature period of his compositional life.

In his centenary year, Signum Classics have issued a new release of a BBC Radio 3 recording of the complete Canticles with Ben Johnson (tenor), James Baillieu (piano), Christopher Ainslie (countertenor), Benedict Nelson (baritone), Martin Owen (horn), and Lucy Wakeford (harp).
Britten’s first Canticle Op.40 was written in 1947 and entitled merely Canticle for high voice and piano. It was only later that it was retitled Canticle I. Britten gave the first performance with Peter Pears on 1st November 1947 at a memorial concert for the Rev. Dick Sheppard, one of the founders of the Peace Pledge Union. The words are by the seventeenth century poet, Francis Quarles, and are partly taken from the Song of Solomon.

In many ways a celebration of Britten’s relationship with Pears, the music portrays the merging of ‘…two little bank divided brooks…where in greater current they conjoin.’ Ben Johnson has a lovely, characterful voice, no mere imitation of Pears. When he sings ‘He is my altar, I his holy place’ Johnson brings a depth of voice and feeling that is mellow and controlled, yet strong and rich. He is finely accompanied by James Baillieu in sensitive playing where, in certain passages, there is almost a Debussian beauty.

Britten’s Canticle II Op.51 (1952) was first performed by Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears and Britten at the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. At this time Britten was working on his next opera Gloriana. A setting from the Chester Miracle play concerning Abraham and Isaac, the Canticle can be performed equally well with a soprano, boy treble or countertenor as in this recording. Certainly there is a more ethereal sound to the opening using a countertenor and in this performance Ben Johnson and countertenor Christopher Ainslie blend wonderfully. To my ears, there is a strange anticipation of the War Requiem (I am thinking of the Libera me where the baritone sings ‘even the wells sunk too deep for war.’). When Ben Johnson suddenly rises up alone he is magnificent, then as they weave around each other they individually give beautiful performances. Ainslie is never sterile but very characterful. Both bring out the almost operatic flavour of the work. As tenor and countertenor join towards the end, the effect is mesmerising after the very human sounds of both soloists in the preceding part. The duet coda is beautifully done, so controlled and sensitive.

Canticle III Op.55 (1954) was written three months after the premiere of Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. Britten had been deeply moved by Edith Sitwell’s poem Still Falls the Rain when John Amis asked him to write something for a memorial concert for the brilliantly gifted pianist , Noel Mewton-Wood, who had given the first performance of the revised version of Britten’s Piano Concerto. Mewton-Wood had taken his own life. Britten said to Sitwell that he found ‘something very right for the poor boy’ in her verses. Dennis Brain, himself tragically killed in a car crash only two years later, played the horn part in the first performance.

As Canticle III opens, so ominous with piano and horn, we are very much back to earth after the last Canticle. Ben Johnson enters, bringing a feeling of controlled anxiety before sudden anger at the words ‘Christ that each day, each night, nails there’. He manages the shift from anxious to anger, brilliantly. It is how Johnson handles the subtle shift of emotions that marks out this performance as special, if unsettling.

Mark Owen (horn) and James Baillieu (piano) handle the difficult and sometimes spare textures of Britten’s writing exceptionally well. It ends wonderfully with the tenor and horn blended superbly together, so much so that the horn sounds almost like a countertenor.

Britten’s Canticle IV Op.86 (1971), a setting of verses by T S Eliot, was first performed at the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival. Some commentators remarked on the apparent simplicity of the setting, wondering if it was merely written as a vehicle for James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk. It was indeed written for them but this new work was more than just a new vehicle for valued colleagues. The vocal writing is masterly though the writing is spare and exceptionally difficult. It must be remembered that this was Britten’s late period with his opera Death in Venice that would feature roles for Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk.

In this performance the blending of countertenor, tenor and baritone, in a kind of strict harmony, works exceptionally well, rising to operatic drama as the Canticle progresses. It shows all three soloists to be ideally characterful and in fine voice in this taxing vocal writing. How they pick up on the text and leave off is brilliantly done. James Baillieu, who gives no less a performance, brings the Canticle to a fine conclusion.

Britten had received cardiac treatment in early 1974 but by August there was news that he had just completed his Canticle V Op.89 (1974), another setting of T S Eliot, his poem The Death of Narcissus. Whilst some have linked Eliot’s Narcissus with Tadzio from Death in Venice, it also seems plausible that the composer drew a comparison with his own physically broken state.

This setting for tenor and harp is even more unsettling, not only in the stark style of late Britten, but in the subject matter of the text. Johnson manages to hold the line of music together in singing of exquisite control and is sensitively accompanied by Lucy Wakeford (harp).

Inevitably people will want the Britten/Pears recording on Decca. Pears’ voice has that distinctive quality that we all tend to associate with Britten’s vocal works. Nevertheless, Johnson is superb in these works in an excellent recording that will give endless pleasure.

There are informative notes by Ben Johnson and full texts.


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