Padmore/Davies/Drake – review

Wigmore Hall, London

Although written as separate pieces over a span of 27 years, Benjamin Britten's Five Canticles are more often performed as a single cycle. Capturing Britten at his musically practical and personal best, these chamber vocal pieces formed a natural opening for the first wave of the Wigmore Hall's celebrations of the composer's centenary.

The Canticles are such concentrated works that, rather like Bach's Goldberg Variations, they need no companions in the programme. That's especially true when the central performer in all five, all of which were written for the distinctive voice of Peter Pears, is Mark Padmore. Though he took a moment to find focus in the lilting, high opening of My Beloved is Mine, he was soon in authoritative voice. The evening became a masterclass in producing expressively direct and unaffected Britten, with Padmore teasing new meaning out of the texts, which range from medieval mystery plays to TS Eliot.

Padmore was joined in the theatrical Abraham and Isaac by the countertenor Iestyn Davies singing the role of the son, originally written for Kathleen Ferrier, which made for a compelling combination. As the disembodied voice of God, the two singers turned their backs on the audience, to unusual effect; and they vibrantly articulated the deeper drama that exists in the words and music . They combined in luxury casting with baritone Marcus Farnsworth for a suitably restrained treatment of the enigmatic Journey of the Magi.

Britten's interesting accompaniments were in exemplary hands, too: Julius Drake played the piano in four of the works; Lucy Wakeford provided the harp accompaniment to the poignant last piece, The Death of Narcissus; and Richard Watkins captured the haunting and challenging horn solos in the remarkable Still Falls the Rain. All made major contributions to an unusually intense evening.

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Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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