Review: Leeds Lieder Festival, Britten - The Five Canticles at Leeds Town Hall, Friday 18th June 2021

BRITTEN’S soul piercing music, a stellar line-up of soloists headed by tenor Mark Padmore; the all- embracing acoustic of Leeds Town Hall, and Padmore’s insightful introductions all magically melded together. This profound performance of Britten’s Five Canticles is destined to remain embedded in the memory.

Britten composed the Canticles between 1947 and 1974 for his life partner and muse, the tenor Peter Pears. The piano parts, intended for Britten himself to accompany Pears, were revealed in luminous detail by Joseph Middleton.

Each Canticle can be seen as a punctuation mark in the careers of both singer and composer. By the time of composing the last two - settings of T.S Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, in 1972 and The Death of Saint Narcissus in 1974 - Britten’s heart condition was rapidly gaining on him. So the accompaniment of the final Canticle was written for Osian Ellis, the renowned Welsh harpist. Britten would have just two more years to live.

The first Canticle, My Beloved is Mine, alludes to himself and Pears. Padmore’s tone colours and phrasing conveyed the tenderness of the poem by Frances Quarles.

Iestyn Davies, the celebrated counter tenor, joined Padmore for Canticle No 2 Abraham and Isaac, originally written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier. Padmore and Davies produced an otherworldly effect as the Voice of God, then as resolute father and sacrificial son. Davies, with astonishing purity of tone, projected Isaac’s innocence.

The third Canticle is a setting of Edith Sitwell’s Still Falls the Rain. This invokes the horror of night- time air raids on London in November 1940. Here, Padmore’s tone was at its most astringent to convey anxiety and pain. Passages for a solo french horn, sometimes muted to menacing effect, were played with incredible softness and beauty by Ben Goldscheider.

Padmore, Davies and Middleton were joined by the young baritone Peter Brathwaite, supple and warm of tone, for The Journey of the Magi. Finally, the crystalline textures of the harp, played by Olivia Jageurs, created a taut dialogue with Padmore’s poet in The Death of Saint Narcissus. His unresolved longing is an oblique reference to Death in Venice, Britten’s operatic swansong.

This performance and all Leeds Lieder Festival events are available on demand until 18th July at

by Geoffrey Mogridge