Showing a lovable side of Benjamin Britten

The Britten Canticles are coming to Hampstead Parish Church on October 17, says Michael White.

By standard definition, a canticle is a hymn or other liturgical song with a text taken from the bible. So the place to hear one is a church. And Hampstead Parish Church is the appropriate-sounding venue for a performance, later this month, of four of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles.

But these aren’t quite what you’d expect. They’re concert works, written for solo voices with accompanying instruments. And though they all have spiritual qualities, the texts aren’t from the bible, but from sources such as Hampstead poet Edith Sitwell (pictured right) whose “Still Falls the Rain” compares the wartime bombing raids on London to the passion of Christ, and TS Eliot, whose “Journey of the Magi” is a downbeat account of the wise men’s visit to the Christ child.

The most impressive of these Canticles uses a text from Chester’s medieval mystery plays, telling the story of Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice his own son Isaac and set by Britten with extraordinary genius half way between an extended song and a small operatic drama.

Originally written for Kathleen Ferrier (another Hampstead resident) to sing the part of Isaac, with Peter Pears as Abraham and Britten himself playing piano, it tends these days to be done with either a boy treble or a countertenor as the sacrificial victim. And for this Hampstead performance it will be a countertenor who was once a member of the celebrated Kings Singers, Robin Tyson.


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Paul Robinson is Abraham, Hampstead Parish Church’s director of music James Sherlock (below, left) is at the keyboard. And with baritone Nicholas Mogg and horn-player Benjamin Goldscheider featured in the other Canticles, it promises to be a special evening.

People sometimes admit they find Britten less than loveable. But I would challenge any serious listener not to find something to love about this music. It’s mysterious, magical but totally accessible. And “Abraham and Isaac” can reduce grown men to tears, it’s so profoundly moving.

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Programmed alongside songs by Schubert and instrumental music by Schumann, the Britten Canticles play 17 October, 7.30pm at Hampstead Parish Church, Church Row NW3. Tickets on the door or from: fom@hampsteadparishchurch.org.uk

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