Benjamin Britten: The Heart of the Matter – A Birthday Hansel, Opus 92 – Canticle III: Still falls the Rain, Opus 55 – Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, Opus 89 – Folksong Arrangements for Tenor and Harp
Nicholas Phan (Tenor), Myra Huang (Piano), Jennifer Montone (Horn), Sivan Magen (Harp), Alan Cumming (Narrator)
Recording: Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, Purchase, NY (January 6 and 14, 2012) and CaVa Sound Studios, Glasgow, Scotland (June 29, 2012) – 64’38
AVIE Records #AV2258 – Booklet in English, German and French
Benjamin Britten was a man who was struggling with his homosexuality, and he was a conscientious objector in World War II. These issues come to the fore in his music. Britten was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century whose affinity for writers, poets and playwrights was used as a bridge into his own world that is distinctly unique, emotionally charged and glaringly telling.
Edith Sitwell’s poems lay foundation for two of Britten’s compositions, the first being The Heart of the Matter in which we hear the eclectic and acclaimed Alan Cumming’s narrative interspersed with bountiful notes by Jennifer Montone on horn. Sitwell’s subjects continue with The Raids: 1941, Night and Dawn (better known as Still falls the Rain as this album is entitled) with translation into canticle form. The rendition redefines the significance her writings through Britten’s free musical verse and recitative secco techniques.
Nicholas Phan’s parlando is satisfying but a bit wavering. In the second half of the CD we hear a selection of folksongs arranged for tenor and harp. Playing the harp is Sivan Magen who sets a certain urgent snap and dynamism to Britten’s atypical music. The harp is one of most pleasing features of this recording.
Britten was never far from literary sources such as Robert Burns and T.S. Eliot. The predominance of atonal chemistry is not without its more comfortable, degreed tonal side including a coarse interpretation of Greensleeves and a pounding The Holly and the Ivy with Myra Huang at the piano.
AVIE has released a bit of everything from Britten’s lesser known anthology in crisp, sharp format. Indeed, it has a curiosity factor.