Canticles, Westminster Abbey, London
Refinement, wisdom and originality
Friday 24 May 2002
I could sing a hundred praises of this superb stage premiere, yet still undersell it. This was peripatetic drama at its best: powerful, involving, sympathetic, touching, inspiring, dotted around the building where Purcell played and Britten is commemorated; a community-generated staging of such delicacy, refinement, wisdom and originality that Deborah Warner might have plotted every move. The main credit goes to director Bill Bankes-Jones, who attributes the best ideas to its participants.
Britten's Canticles are in part elegies – for dead friends, or life's transience. This sense of purged continuity dominates Daniel Norman's singing of each of the focal figures. To hear Norman, one of our most eloquent, refined and sensitive tenors, in these shifting roles revealed his rich and astonishing versatility. At "I am the vine" in Francis Quarles's "My Beloved is Mine" (the piano part and vocal line almost foreshadow Miles and Quint), the rapture was palpable; in "The Death of St Narcissus" (Britten's last, composed in 1974 when his own death was on the cards), Norman's stance, gesture and gentle economy of movement were perfect.
Five spirited ensembles, brought together by umbrella group London String of Pearls, each contributed meaning and added atmosphere: dancing acolytes to mirror Narcissus; a VE Day tea party (on the piano), crystallising deliciously the tinkling isolation and ennui – Sickert meets TS Eliot – of Edith Sitwell's "Still Falls the Rain", placed last (the running order was ingenious). The musical essence lay in Dominic Harlan's meticulous accompaniments, full of wonderful, minute detail – plus Alice Trentham's nursing harp and the contrary-motion horn patterings of Evgeny Chebykin. "The Magi" engaged Norman with baritone Thomas Guthrie and countertenor Simon Baker in a gorgeous trio, matched by subliminal pantomime and simple props (parodied crimson and ermine, plus a black cloth for enfolding night – blissfully evocative).
But the planned high point was "Abraham and Isaac": the tender chemistry of Norman and Baker as scarred father and son, interlocked in this archetypal struggle of the severe and the human, hit a raw nerve. Simon Baker's alto is as touching as boy alto of John Hahessy (now Elwes) was at the premiere four decades earlier. One missed embrace spoke mountains. James Bowman and Ian Partridge, paired like pantomime dames as a camera and boom attended God the Father, lent a light comedy that actually heightened the pathos.
Remarkable that Westminster Cathedral, for which Britten wrote his Missa Brevis – Hahessy was one the boy soloists – should mount its own equally striking premiere two days earlier. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's new Mass – magnificently sung by Martin Baker's second-to-none choir – proves a revelation in its own way. Davies, whose "blasphemous" avant-garde works actually cloak a passion for re-energising all too often flaccid Christian archetypes, is surely an ideal Mass composer (the dark Kyries and fluent Agnus, especially, proved it; even the congregation-aimed added Credo appealed). This was a signal turning point, and not, one hopes, Davies's final liturgical sortie.
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