Britten: Canticles Nos I-V
This attractive release offers a new generation of voices for Britten in his centenary year; and a useful new compilation of the Canticles for the catalogue. The team of musicians is led by the tenor Ben Johnson who is intelligent, clear of enunciation and entirely without pretension. He also contributes his own perceptive liner notes; and the expressive nuance of James Baillieu’s piano accompanying is reminiscent of Britten’s own.
That said, some of these performances just miss achieving lift-off. My Beloved is Mine is tender and unforced, but cool rather than intense in its response to the implied sensuousness of the text of the 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles. In the medieval Abraham and Isaac, too, in which Johnson and Baillieu are joined by the supercool countertenor Christopher Ainslie, something of the inner drama of the sacrifice is missing.
Johnson is at his best in Still Falls the Rain and in The Death of Narcissus, in writing that reveals the strength and changing colours throughout his tenor register – just as Britten had intended with the voice of Peter Pears for whom these works were originally imagined. Baritone Benedict Nelson gives substance to The Journey of the Magi, with perfect blend and balance.