Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten, The Five Canticles – Leeds Lieder Festival @ Victoria Hall, Leeds Town Hall, Leeds

18 June 2021

A wonderful chance to hear Britten performed in a wonderful venue.

Iestyn Davies, Joseph Middleton, Mark Padmore & Peter Brathwaite

Iestyn Davies, Joseph Middleton, Mark Padmore & Peter Brathwaite (Photo: Tom Arber)

Britten wrote the Five Canticles at various times over twenty seven years, and as Mark Padmore said in his sensitive introductions, they allow us to see how the composer’s music developed and how he responded to the texts he chose. The quality of these pieces has never been in doubt, and they have been well served by many singers and instrumentalists, but it’s difficult to imagine a more distinguished group than the quintet onstage at the Victoria Hall on Friday night.

Mark Padmore has long been a specialist in Britten’s music, and his deep understanding and love for the composer’s works shone through in every bar. His slightly astringent tone has become a little threadbare in extremis, but remains expressive and wedded to the music with such intensity that this seems not to matter. The first Canticle, My Beloved is mine sets Francis Quarles’ A Divine Rapture (quoted from The Song of Songs) which expresses everlasting devotion with extravagant lines. Written for a memorial service for Dick Sheppard, a founder of the Peace Pledge, it is Britten’s paean of love for Peter Pears, and Padmore’s singing of it pays homage to the great tenor whilst being sharply individual.

Joseph Middleton accompanied with virtuosic sensitivity, the rippling introduction more than ever suggestive of the images of flowing water in the first stanza, and Padmore’s phrasing and intonation in the final lines of each stanza, with its variants on ‘…I my best beloved’s am, and he is mine’ was beautifully nuanced.

Leeds Town Hall

Leeds Town Hall (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Abraham and Isaac was written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, and has had many fine interpreters, but the combination of Padmore, Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton has to be ideal. Padmore’s anguished, conflicted father and Davies’ exquisitely sung Isaac gave such tender and moving responses that the silence in the vast hall seemed a living thing, and Middleton was their equal partner in expressive warmth. Davies’ almost ethereal singing of ‘Let it pass lightly and over go’ was one of those moments in which it felt that time stood still.

“…it’s difficult to imagine a more distinguished group than the quintet onstage at the Victoria Hall on Friday night”

Written in 1954 for voice, horn and piano, and setting Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still falls the rain,’ Canticle III caused Britten some anxiety, but as he said in a letter to the poet, “…writing this work has helped me in my development as a composer… I am on the threshold of a new musical world.” Mark Padmore was finely partnered in the work by the French Horn of Ben Goldscheider, who made the challenging phrases seem effortless, and by Middleton’s ever-sympathetic piano. As Padmore remarked, the poem reflects a time when it was impossible to know who would survive the war – a point whose present-day significance was not lost on the audience.

Canticle IV sets Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ to an anxious, pulsating piano in which we hear both the Kings’ determined footsteps and the plodding movements of the camels. The three kings were finely characterized by Padmore, Davies and the baritone Peter Brathwaite, whose beautiful, burnished tone made quite an impression.

The final Canticle, The death of Saint Narcissus was written  in 1974, and sets another poem by T.S. Eliot, who, according to the writer Donald Mitchell, was “one of the few poets (Britten) could bear to read” after his heart surgery. He had given up playing the piano in public, and this work uses a harp, played in the first performance by Osian Ellis, and here by Olivia Jageurs who provided both dramatic and poignant commentary on the lines.

This was the second great evening in the Leeds Lieder programme, and there’s much more to come, with Soraya Mafi, Ema Nikolovska, William Thomas and Graham Johnson on Saturday night, and James Gilchrist on Sunday afternoon.

Full details at leedslieder.org.uk

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