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Master singers

10/18/2002 -  
Benjamin Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op. 74, Folk song settings, Canticles
Ian Bostridge (tenor), David Daniels (counter-tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Julius Drake (piano), Timothy Brown (horn), Skaila Kanga (harp)

The Barbican's "Great Performers" series can seem overloaded with recording tours. But this programme, based on one performed and recorded at the Edinburgh Festival, can only have gained from the singers' increasing familiarity with and insight into the works. Britten's extended settings of Blake and of a range of dense literary texts in the Canticles are not works to be dashed off lightly in performance. David Daniels' charming performance of four comparatively easygoing folk song settings before the interval ("There's none to soothe", "Sweet Polly Oliver", with its neat happy ending, "O Waly, Waly", and the delightful, near-nonsense "Oliver Cromwell") gave a nice lift in the middle.

Christopher Maltman's performance of the Songs and Proverbs was much tougher stuff. Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Britten's setting of a selection of poems made by Peter Pears is a tour de force of integrating form and meaning, a symphonic poem disguised as song cycle. Maltman is certainly one of the heirs of Fischer-Dieskau in his superb communication of the text at every level, but he added a hint of humanity and wonder to the verbal and musical mysteries, from the radical urban angst of "London" to the intense horror of anger and hatred in "A poison tree" and the gnostic insight of "Every night and every morn".

The Canticles were composed between 1947 and 1974, but performed together here they too seem to make up a dramatic cycle that focuses on sacrifice, suffering and love. All have a central tenor role, originally written for Pears and sung here by Ian Bostridge. Bostridge is outstanding in Britten's works, but he is a successor to Pears mainly only in his verbal facility and his deep intelligence -- he has none of the old-fashioned theatricality that Pears brought to his performances, and his voice is far richer and darker, which perhaps makes his words harder to hear at times. The cycle begins with the lovely setting of Francis Quarles' metaphysical "My beloved is mine", a discourse on Christ's love for the church, or a naughty description of profane love in theological language, depending on how you look at it. Its centrepiece is "Still falls the rain", to a poem by Edith Sitwell that (like Dylan Thomas' "Ceremony after a fire raid") uses the language of Christ's crucifixion and the sacraments to express the grief of London during the Blitz. The final setting, "The death of Saint Narcissus", to a text by T.S. Eliot, is an inevitably camp depiction of wounded young flesh. Bostridge treated all of these solo items with equal seriousness, making "Still falls the rain" particularly moving.

The penultimate setting, "Journey of the Magi", also to a text by Eliot, is for three voices in something like close harmony. There is no dialogue, only three individual voices expressing the same alienation and weariness. Daniels' sweet counter-tenor added a lush bloom and appropriate exoticism to what might have sounded inappropriately like Anglican liturgy.

The high point of the Canticles, and of the programme, was undoubtedly Abraham and Isaac, the second canticle. Based on a part of the Chester Mystery Play, and originally written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, it is a powerful succinct drama that says exactly what it means. The blended tenor and counter-tenor singing as the voice of God were wonderfully otherworldly, while Bostridge as Abraham and Daniels as Isaac were absolutely straightforward and honest.
Julius Drake accompanied expertly.

H.E. Elsom



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