Sunday, November 24, 2013

Benjamin Britten: Canticle II - Abraham and Isaac

What could it be this weekend but a piece of Benjamin Britten?

His second canticle dates from 1952 and is a setting of words from the Chester Mystery Plays. It is written for a tenor to sing Abraham, but Issac can be a boy, a woman or a countertenor. Here the soloists are Michael Slattery and Nolan Wolfe from the Choir of Men and Boys of the Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, New York.

Abraham and Isaac contains the theme of innocence imperilled that is to be found in so many of Britten's great works and also displays his ability to achieve stunning effects with the simplest of forces.

Here the voice of God is realised by the two soloists singing together and Britten gave instructions that they should face away from one another when the work is performed. The Good Morning Britten blog says:
The combination of the two voices at the start of this canticle, held over a luminous piano accompaniment of almost pure stillness, is one of the most magical moments in all of Britten’s vocal writing, especially if experienced in performance. There is a static reverence that is rarely found in any music up to this point, let alone Britten’s, as the voice of God is heard – but afterwards it is possible to hear the influence of this writing in the devotional music of John Tavener and Arvo Pärt.
A lesser composer would surely have found a baritone to sing God.

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