Britten: Canticles I-V; The Heart of the Matter

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Canticles I-V; The Heart of the Matter
PERFORMER: Jean Rigby (contralto), Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Philip Langridge (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone), Frank Lloyd (horn), Osian Ellis (harp), Steuart Bedford (piano), Judi Dench (narrator)
CATALOGUE NO: 14812
Britten’s five canticles (1947-74) are linked only by their preoccupation with things spiritual and with the tenor voice. They are in no way canticles in the liturgical, ‘Mag and Nunc’, sense – an indication of Britten’s ambiguous relationship with the established church.

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The fact one cannot ignore when dealing with this music is that it was written for Peter Pears – Canticle I, for instance, is surely a deeply personal love song to him. An excellent recording of the Canticles by Pears exists on Decca, and it would be hard not to come down in its favour if faced with the choice.

That said, Philip Langridge is a wonderful singer, with a voice that confidently encompasses all the shades of Britten’s writing, from the translucent, ecstatic quality of Canticle I to the suffering intensity of Still Falls the Rain, setting words by Edith Sitwell. The latter is heard for the first time on disc in the context of a programme of Sitwell’s poetry and Britten’s music, entitled ‘The Heart of the Matter’, first given at Aldeburgh in 1956, included here for its repeated horn fanfare and three short settings.

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Jean Rigby is the clear-voiced victim in Abraham and Isaac. Steuart Bedford’s piano playing throughout the disc is exceptional, as is the sound quality. Janet Banks