Alibi V.13 No.52 • Dec 23-29, 2004 

Blue Note

Ian Bostridge and David Daniels Britten: The Canticles/Folksong Arrangements (Virgin Classics)

This much anticipated pairing of our greatest young Britten tenor, Ian Bostridge, and most versatile countertenor, David Daniels, yields impressive results. Britten was a devout Christian and pacifist who wrote much of his vocal music for his life-partner, tenor Peter Pears.

Canticle I, "My Beloved is Mine," a lyrical setting of a 17th-century elaboration on a line from the Biblical Book of Canticles, comes across as an ardent declaration of male love. Immediately appealing, this ecstatic mini-cantata finds a welcome home in the warmth and sweetness of Bostridge's voice. Equally appealing is Canticle II, "Abraham and Isaac." It finds fresh realization in the inspired partnership of Bostridge and Daniels. The men's voices blend wonderfully, with countertenor Daniels sounding ideally innocent and pure as Abraham's sacrificial son.

Thanks to a recent release in the BBC's "Britten: The Performer" series, we have a 1956 recording of Canticle III, "Still Falls the Rain," in which Britten and horn virtuoso Dennis Brain accompany Pears a year after the work was composed. Britten's setting of poet Edith Sitwell's searing indictment of war faithfully captures Pears' unique ability to voice the essence of suffering, rotting flesh and spiritual decadence in a manner equally hypnotic and repellent. The far different Bostridge uses his beautiful, evenly produced voice and probing intelligence to create a deeply felt, emotionally convincing portrayal of Christ's suffering.

Turning to the folksong settings, equally distributed among the three soloists, no one sings "O Waly, Waly" better than Kathleen Ferrier; her second version offers an incomparable blend of spiritual conviction, emotional despair and vocal beauty. Soprano Arleen Auger's version of "Down by the Salley Gardens" is similarly unforgettable with its blend of pristine beauty, womanly maturity and open heart. While baritone Maltman sounds luscious in "The Plough Boy," he's hardly as deep as Auger in "The Salley Gardens" and Pears in "The foggy, foggy dew." Daniels overdoes some of the pathos in "O Waly, Waly," and Bostridge refuses to let "Greensleeves" sing for itself. Regardless, if you have never experienced the depth that Britten's genius leant to simple folk melodies, these performances guarantee revelations.