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Benjamin Britten: The CanticlesBen Johnson
As part of the celebration Britten's Centenery in 2013, this new recording presents Britten's five Canticles, performed by tenor Ben Johnson with James Baillieu accompanying.
Ben Johnson describes his attraction to these works in his self-penned notes for the disc: "Each is deep with meaning or subversion, a trademark of Britten’s music to a modern audience. In their very performance they glide through such variety of style that it makes them wonderfully difficult to categorise. They are song, opera, cantata and chamber music, and so they correspond with the most delicate of intimacy and to the most effective of grand gesture … In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter points out the close links between the Canticles and Britten’s operas. This answers in part their difference from the ‘usual’ song repertoire: their religious flavour (a stronger taste in some than others) mixed with the circumstances of their composition make for a unique strand in Britten’s output."
What people are saying
"... a superb collection containing some of the most intensely beautiful of all Britten's vocal writing" The Guardian, February 2013
"... Released as part of the celebration of Britten’s centenary, this CD comes highly recommended." The Northern Echo, February 2013
Ben Johnson, tenor
James Baillieu, piano
Christopher Ainslie, countertenor
Benedict Nelson, baritone
Martin Owen, horn
Lucy Wakeford, harp
Release date: 11th Feb 2013
Order code: SIGCD317
|1.||Canticle I, Op. 40: My beloved is mine||Benjamin Britten||8.04|
|2.||Canticle II, Op. 51: Abraham and Isaac||Benjamin Britten||17.01|
|3.||Canticle III, Op. 55: Still Falls the Rain ? the Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn||Benjamin Britten||12.01|
|4.||Canticle IV, Op. 86: The Journey of the Magi||Benjamin Britten||11.13|
|5.||Canticle IV, Op. 86: The Journey of the Magi||Benjamin Britten||7.40|
… Among new issues, I especially like Signum's complete recording of the five Canticles whose compositions spanned almost Britten's entire creative career, from 1947, just after Peter Grimes, until 1974, just two years before he died.
The tenor Ben Johnson and his pianist James Baillieu have the measure of this often dense and difficult music, some of which, notably the third Canticle, Still Falls The Rain, more than flirts with atonalism. Johnson plainly lives this music, as an intelligent and insightful liner note he penned himself readily attests.
Some canticles require other performers, including the baritone Benedict Nelson, and the harpist Lucy Wakeford. All perform well, though I do have reservations about the contribution of the South African counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie in the second, Abraham And Isaac, where at times his singing comes close to caricature.
This canticle from 1952 was originally written for Britten's partner Peter Pears and the mezzo Kathleen Ferrier. It's sad that counter-tenors have now taken over the mezzo part.
The Mail on Sunday, David Mellor
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 operaThe 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.
The Classical Reviewer, Bruce Reader
There's nothing precious or pained about Ben Johnson's tenor in his admirable recording of the five Canticles. The tone is sturdy, open and direct.
Geoff Brown, The Times
Tenor Ben Johnson, accompanied by James Ballieul, performs Britten’s five Canticles. The music embraces a variety of styles, including song, opera, cantata and chamber music. The album includes contributions from countertenor Christopher Ainslie and baritone Benedict Nelson. Released as part of the celebration of Britten’s centenary, this CD comes highly recommended.
The Northern Echo, Gavin Engelbrecht
One of the more interesting of the tide of Britten centenary tributes, The Canticles features the five vocal settings composed at various points between 1947 and 1974, in which the ostensible religious themes disguise more secular interests – the barely veiled homoeroticism of Francis Quarles' 17th-century adoration of Christ in "Canticle I", the allegorical linking of Blitz and Crucifixion in the Edith Sitwell powem used for "Canticle III" etc. Set to piano parts occasionally reflecting the influence of the French Romantics, the most intriguing realisations are those on which tenor Ben Johnson is joined by other voices – with baritone and countertenor as the three Magi in "Canticle IV", and most sublimely, paired with countertenor for the Abraham and Isaac story of "Canticle II".
Britten's canticles span virtually his whole creative life with the first, My beloved is mine appearing in 1947 after Albert Herring and the last The Death of St Narcissus in 1974 after Death in Venice. Each is written for a different combination of voice and instruments but the thread running through all of them is the tenor voice; notably the voice of Peter Pears. Ben Johnson was recently seen at ENO singing the role of Alfredo in the new production of La Traviata. This recording was made in association with the BBC. It is dedicated to Johnson's teacher, Neil Mackie, who was himself a pupil and friend of Pears, so Johnson comes from a fine pedigree.
Canticle I, My Beloved is Mine sets poetry by the 17th century Francis Quarles, who wrote almost exclusively religious poetry. At first sight the poem is a meditation on the ecstasy of man's relationship to God, but Britten's treatment of the text has led commentators to wonder how much the result is about homosexuality. The result is at times surprisingly direct, for all the floridness of the vocal writing.
Ben Johnson sings with an admirable firmness of tone and great flexibility. His performances are richly characterful, with his voice surprisingly strong and quite full. He brings a range of tone and colour to his performance, with beautiful placement of the voice. James Baillieu is a sympathetic and vigorous accompanist.
Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac was written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier who had created the title role in the English Opera Group's performances of The Rape of Lucretia. Britten had recently finished Billy Budd and rather interestingly there is a link here because Melville quotes Abraham and Isaac in his novella. Britten brilliantly encapsulates an entire operatic canvas with just 2 singers, a piano and a 15 minute piece.
Johnson is joined by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie and the two combine for a wonderfully magical and haunting opening. The two voices are in contrast, with Johnson all firmness and vigour, Ainslie slightly covered tone but nicely free particularly in the top register. The two combine to create an intense and very personal drama which brings out the very operatic feel of the canticle.
The tone darkens with Canticle III, Still falls the rain which was written for a memorial concert for Noel Mewton-Wood who had committed suicide; the piece also reflects Britten's fascination with the twelve-tone system. It was written just three months after the premiere ofThe Turn of the Screw and both works use theme and variations.
Johnson's care for the words really comes over in the third canticle, combined with a dark intensity of line. Both he and horn player Martin Owen bring a haunting beauty to the work, and the way they combine in the final moments is magical. Edith Sitwell's words are strong, and Britten's response is surprisingly tough. Johnson's vibrant tones create a hauntingly intense performance. I was pleased to note that the performers recorded the original canticle on its own, and not the longer sequence The Heart of the Matter which Britten and Pears created later.
The final two canticles both set T.S. Eliot poetry, and they stand either side of Britten's final operatic work Death in Venice. Canticle IV, The Journey of the Magi was premiered by James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley Quirk, all of whom performed in Death in Venice. Britten's setting of Eliot's poem is masterly in the way it convey's the sheer uneasiness of the Magi, making you feel the cold and using changing time signatures to convey the awkwardness of the journey.
There is profound beauty in the way Ainslie, Johnson and baritone Benedict Nelson combine with Baillieu's nervous, edgy piano. For the narrative sections, each voice is quite dramatic in their solo contributions but the three come together in a way which is poignant, with each of the three voices being perfectly placed.
Canticle V, The Death of St Narcissus sets a curious piece of juvenilia by Eliot. Johnson copes well with the flowery text and convinces that there is a depth and beauty to it. He is superbly accompanied by Lucy Wakeford's harp.
Time and again in these performances I was struct by how much care Johnson takes with the placement of words and music, and by the richness that he brings to these pieces. All five are heavily text based works, and Johnson shows that he has learned to not only cope with the texts, but to render them with eloquence. Johnson's voice is rich and fully on the edge of moving away from a lyric, but he sings with a powerful sense of line and a sophisticated use of tonal colour palate.
James Baillieu is far more than just a sympathetic supporter, and his fully Johnson's partner. You might have accounts of the canticles by other, better known singers, but I can recommend this new one for its intelligence and insight.
Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill
Ben Johnson is rising rapidly through the richly stocked ranks of young British tenors. His musical range is wide (as demonstrated by the current ENO production of La Traviata), but Johnson has already made a particular name for himself singing Britten, as is confirmed by this very fine disc of the five canticles composed for Peter Pears between 1947 and 1974.
Only the first in the sequence, My Beloved Is Mine, is solely for tenor and piano; the others all introduce either a second voice or another instrument. Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie joins Johnson for the second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, while Benedict Nelson, a baritone, combines with both of them in the fourth, The Journey of the Magi. In the third, Still Falls the Rain, a solo horn (Martin Owen) insinuates itself, while in the last, The Death of St Narcissus, a harpist (Lucy Wakeford) replaces James Baillieu, the recording's wonderfully alert pianist.
If the other vocal contributions don't always quite match Johnson's impeccable phrasing and subtle control and colouring, this is nonetheless a superb collection containing some of the most intensely beautiful of all Britten's vocal writing.
The Guardian, Andrew Clements
Tenor Ben Johnson, accompanied by James Baillieu, performs Britten's five Canticles. The music embraces a variety of styles, including song, opera, cantata and chamber music. The album includes contributions from countertenor Christopher Ainslie and baritone Benedict Nelson. Released as part of the celebration of Britten's centenary, this CD comes highly recommended.
Northern Echo, Gavin Engelbrecht