Classical review: The Canticles, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

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The big revelation of Britten’s centenary year is turning out to be sheer multifariousness of his creation, generating a multitude of short works alongside the symphonic and operatic masterpieces. Some of those short works are masterpieces too, notably the five Canticles which fit no known category.

These quasi-cantatas for Peter Pears, with constantly changing vocal support and instrumentation, are not often performed. Each was triggered by a momentous event in Britten’s life, each packs a punch out of all proportion to its ‘small’ form, and each delivers multiple layers of meaning. Inspired by the ‘darkness pierced by light, riches out of bareness’ which they discern in these pieces, Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable have built a danced semi-staging round a performance led by Ian Bostridge, who is the Pears de nos jours.

Composed in 1947 ostensibly to commemorate a famous pacifist, the first Canticle turns a 17th century metaphysical poem by Francis Quarles into a coded celebration of Britten’s love for Pears. Accompanied by Julius Drake, Bostridge brought all his virtuosity to bear on Britten’s inventive musical games with the text, and, given that that text plays intricate games with images, this should have been enough for us to chew on. But no: we also got a simpering little tea-for-two routine by a pair of lovelorn ballet-boys, which (unless you closed your eyes) cheapened the work no end. 

Canticle II is the setting of a Chester miracle-play retelling of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It was written for Pears and the great contralto Kathleen Ferrier, and here Bostridge was joined by Ferrier’s nearest contemporary male equivalent, Iestyn Davies; the peripheral dance element was mercifully restrained. The result was a fascinating blend of timbres, with Drake’s piano sending up a wonderful miasma of additional dark harmonics.

With Canticle III, directors and performers – now including horn-player Richard Watkins - struck gold. ‘Still falls the rain’ - Edith Sitwell’s angry evocation of the Blitz, but for Britten tied to a tragic homosexual love-suicide – was the text, to which war artist John Keane contributed a back-projected video. And here there was no disjunction between the fury of Bostridge’s performance, the mortar-fire from Drake’s piano, and the rage of Keane’s splicing of a Grünewald crucifixion with a newsreel orgy of bomb-making and dropping. The TS Eliot texts to the final two Canticles were subtly served by Britten and Bostridge, but once again the dance element was de trop. But it’s still a fascinating evening.

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