Benjamin Britten: The Canticles


As part of the celebration Britten’s Centenery in 2013, this new recording presents Britten’s five Canticles, performed by tenor Ben Johnson with James Baillieu accompanying. 

Ben Johnson describes his attraction to these works in his self-penned notes for the disc: "Each is deep with meaning or subversion, a trademark of Britten’s music to a modern audience. In their very performance they glide through such variety of style that it makes them wonderfully difficult to categorise. They are song, opera, cantata and chamber music, and so they correspond with the most delicate of intimacy and to the most effective of grand gesture … In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter points out the close links between the Canticles and Britten’s operas. This answers in part their difference from the ‘usual’ song repertoire: their religious flavour (a stronger taste in some than others) mixed with the circumstances of their composition make for a unique strand in Britten’s output."


What people are saying

"… a superb collection containing some of the most intensely beautiful of all Britten’s vocal writing" The Guardian, February 2013 

"… Released as part of the celebration of Britten’s centenary, this CD comes highly recommended." The Northern Echo, February 2013

Ben Johnson, tenor 
James Baillieu, piano
Christopher Ainslie, countertenor
Benedict Nelson, baritone
Martin Owen, horn
Lucy Wakeford, harp

Release date:11th Feb 2013
Order code:SIGCD317
Barcode: 635212031728

August 2013

Andrew McGregor: Now, former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Ben Johnson is the only one of our trio of Tenors who has recorded all five Britten Canticles, with pianist James Baillieu. While I may slightly prefer Gilchrist and Tilbrook in the first Canticle, Johnson, Baillieu and countertenor Christopher Ainslie really come into their own in Canticle II Abraham and Isaac. This is the one where Britten evokes the voice of God talking to Abraham by having the two singers combined as an eerie pitch, facing away from audience and microphones. Let’s join it at the point where God has commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, and, as Abraham prepares to bind Isaac’s hands, the boy submits to God’s will and they say their farewells to one another.


Andrew McGregor: Abraham and Isaac – Benjamin Britten’s Canticle II with Alto Christopher Ainslie, Tenor Ben Johnson and pianist James Baillieu. One of the high points is Johnson’s traversal of all five of Britten’s Canticles, spanning pretty much the entirety of his life, from 1947 to 1974. An excellent idea to record them all for the Britten Anniversary and they’re fine performances on the whole, although number four – Journey of the Magi – just somehow doesn’t come together as convincingly as the others. Even so, having all five on a single CD like this makes perfect sense. They were released earlier this year on Signum Classics.

BBC Radio 3 CD Review, Andrew McGregor

June 2013

Young British tenor Ben Johnson has recorded all five of The Canticles (Signum) in interpretations that are, similarly, comfortably outside the Pears shadow. The pieces span most of Britten’s creative life and are frequently jaw-droppingly explicit in their homoeroticism. I have no idea of Johnson’s sexuality, but he sings the works as if to the manner born, and in a voice unafraid of making virile sounds.

Johnson’s partners – James Baillieu on piano, Martin Owen on horn, Lucy Wakeford on harp, countertenor Christopher Ainslie, and baritone Benedict Nelson – are even more acute musicians than Phan’s, and there’s a constant sense of these musicians drawing out the best in each other. Johnson’s singing is not as assertive as Phan’s, but no less powerful for that. His Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, is reason enough to hear this fine disc. He and Ainslie are positively otherworldly in enacting this familiar Bible story – to the point where you’re transfixed by suspense in a tale whose ending you know all too well.

Bay Area Reporter, Tim Pfaff

June 2013

The fourth generation of Britten tenors, now well into its stride, is probably the first to escape entirely from the shadow cast by Peter Pears that slanted early perceptions not only of Philip Langridge and Robert Tear but even (albeit to a lesser extent) the ‘new venerables’ such as Mark Padmore and John Mark Ainsley.

Though I risk perpetuating the very attitude I’m pleased to see fading away, occasionally Ben Johnson (who studied with Pears’s pupil, Neil Mackie) reminds me instead of the great Welsh tenor, Richard Lewis. The Italianate edge to his voice, which served him so well in his recent Donizetti and Verdi outings with English National Opera, rings out in the opening stanzas of Canticle I (My Beloved Is Mine) as he embarks on an interpretation of Francis Quarles’s mystic text that is tender, prayerful and entirely devoid of mannerisms. The tone is thereby set for probing accounts of the five Canticles that in four cases at least are close to ideal.

The other two solo-voice Canticles are similarly marked by fine diction and vocal beauty as well as an interpretational depth that comes as no surprise given the perceptive nature of Johnson’s own booklet note. In Canticle III (Still Falls the Rain) he brings out the contrast between Britten’s ascetic vocal line and the eloquent accompaniment for horn and piano (superbly played by Martin Owen and James Baillieu respectively, the latter proving to be a most sensitive and restrained accompanist throughout the first four pieces). In Canticle V (The Death of Saint Narcissus) the “dancer before God” all but takes physical form in Lucy Wakeford’s exquisite playing of the loose-limbed harp accompaniment. Shades of Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, perhaps? It could almost be “Tadzio’s Liebestod”.

Where the tenor is joined by other voices, fortunes are more mixed. The performance of Canticle IV is a small triumph as a distinct winter chill is carried forth in the close harmonies of the three well-matched voices (Christopher Ainslie and Benedict Nelson are Johnson’s admirable fellow-travellers) while Baillieu’s piano trudges on like the journeying boy of Britten’s song-cycle, Winter Words. Britten’s triple-narrator idea is consciously less ‘enacted’ than it sometimes is – a shrewd decision given that The Journey of the Magi is a memory piece. T. S. Eliot’s wise men are storytellers, not players, as we are reminded when they break off from their fireside yarn-spinning to instruct an unseen recorder to “Set down this”.

Canticle II begins with a sublime ‘voice of God’ effect in which countertenor and tenor blend as one. The problem, though, is that Ainslie is markedly less suited to personifying Isaac than he is the Magus of the later work. Something is surely amiss when Isaac sounds like Oberon, and the splendid masculinity of Ainslie’s timbre does little to suggest the innocent child of the Chester Miracle Play. He fails to locate the boy’s childishness at potentially heart-rending moments such as the innocent question to his father, “Where is the beast that we shall kill?”. Although Britten himself anticipated that Isaac would be sung by a woman or a boy alto, the role can certainly be made effective by a countertenor – as David Daniels, in his more overtly dramatic recording with Ian Bostridge (Virgin Classics), ably demonstrates.

Not so many years ago the Canticles were each an unloved Cinderella of the Britten canon, yet nowadays they must are among his most performed and recorded works for the voice. How times change. For the most part this rewarding, superbly engineered new version offers exceptional insights and degrees of beauty. Amid exalted company this excellently recorded release stands tall. The booklet includes the texts.

Classical Source, Mark Valencia

June 2013

This is a beautiful recording of Britten’s five Canticles. It is one of the finest new discs of Britten’s music that I’ve heard so far in this anniversary year, and it’s one I’d strongly encourage any admirer of his vocal music to hear. Of course, no Britten collection should be without the performances of these extraordinary and very personal works made by Peter Pears and the composer, nor one of the sets by a later generation of tenors: I’ve listed Philip Langridge’s powerful versions on a disc that is particularly useful for including The Heart of the Matter – the work that incorporates Canticle No. 3 and puts it in the context of other Sitwell settings. However, there’s plenty to be said for presenting all five Canticles as Britten wrote them, as happens on this new release from Signum.

The gifted young tenor Ben Johnson has dedicated this recording to his teacher Neil Mackie, who was himself a pupil of Pears. This underlines Johnson’s credentials as a Britten singer, and his utterly natural affinity for this music shines through from the first phrases of Canticle No. 1, ‘My beloved is mine’: superb diction and just the right kind of calm sensuality. Johnson resists any tendency to over-dramatize these gentle, intimate works and he gives performances that are wholly involving, thanks to the subtle colouring of his voice, the eloquence of his phrasing and the real understanding he shows for the texts. In many places, the results are hauntingly lovely. He is greatly helped by a marvellous ·accompanist: James Baillieu plays the piano parts of the first four Canticles with the greatest sensitivity and subtlety, and the harpist Lucy Wakeford is similarly impressive in Canticle No. 5.

The other singers are excellent too. I particularly liked Christopher Ainslie’s sweet-toned and very expressive countertenor in ‘Abraham and Isaac’, which receives an intense and often magical performance. Ainslie and the baritone Benedict Nelson join Johnson in Britten’s setting of Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’, a work that was originally written for Pears, Bowman and Shirley-Quirk, and this new version is particularly good at bringing out the doubts and uncertainties of the Wise Men. Musically, they are also an extremely well-matched trio. Martin Owen is the outstanding horn player in Canticle No. 3.

With an intelligent note by Johnson, and texts printed in a sensible type size, the booklet is excellent, and the recording, made in association with the BBC, is warm and very well balanced; the piano sound is particularly fine. This is a disc to which I’ve returned several times in the last few weeks and it has moved me on each occasion. I recommend it very warmly.

International Record Review, Nigel Simeone

June 2013

The focus of this complete set of the Canticles is tenor Ben Johnson, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist in 2010-12, and these BBC recordings derive from his time there. Britten has formed an ongoing theme in Johnson’s career and he approaches the Canticles with a thorough understanding of the context of these five works, which run like a thread through Britten’s life. At a few points his singing could do with more poetry to the sound but the unaffected honesty of his singing is always welcome. Johnson is at his finest in Canticle V, where he brings clarity to TS Eliot’s strange visions of ecstasy, and especially Canticle Ill, the setting of Edith Sitwell’s wartime poem ‘Still falls the rain’, which does not often come across with such directness and intensity. He also supplies notes of his own with a nicely personal touch.

The supporting performers are well chosen. Abraham and lsaac opens with Johnson and countertenor Christopher Ainslie, judiciously placed by the technicians, making a hauntingly other-worldly effect as the voice of God. Benedict Nelson blends well with the two of them in Canticle IV. The recording keeps James Baillieu’s tellingly characterised accompaniments to the fore, as it does solo horn and harp, both excellent. Recordings with Peter Pears remain the benchmark, as ever. Philip Langridge on Naxos delves most deeply into the poetry and Ian Bostridge on Virgin comes with arguably the finest clutch of voices; but this new release from Signum Classics is a contender well worth hearing.

Gramophone, Richard Fairman

March 2013

… Among new issues, I especially like Signum’s complete recording of the five Canticles whose compositions spanned almost Britten’s entire creative career, from 1947, just after Peter Grimes, until 1974, just two years before he died. 

The tenor Ben Johnson and his pianist James Baillieu have the measure of this often dense and difficult music, some of which, notably the third Canticle, Still Falls The Rain, more than flirts with atonalism. Johnson plainly lives this music, as an intelligent and insightful liner note he penned himself readily attests. 

Some canticles require other performers, including the baritone Benedict Nelson, and the harpist Lucy Wakeford. All perform well, though I do have reservations about the contribution of the South African counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie in the second, Abraham And Isaac, where at times his singing comes close to caricature. 

This canticle from 1952 was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears and the mezzo Kathleen Ferrier. It’s sad that counter-tenors have now taken over the mezzo part. 



The Mail on Sunday, David Mellor

March 2013 

Britten’s first Canticle Op.40 was written in 1947 and entitled merely Canticle for high voice and piano. It was only later that it was retitled Canticle I. Britten gave the first performance with Peter Pears on 1st November 1947 at a memorial concert for the Rev. Dick Sheppard, one of the founders of the Peace Pledge Union. The words are by the seventeenth century poet, Francis Quarles, and are partly taken from the Song of Solomon. 

In many ways a celebration of Britten’s relationship with Pears, the music portrays the merging of ‘…two little bank divided brooks…where in greater current they conjoin.’ Ben Johnson has a lovely, characterful voice, no mere imitation of Pears. When he sings ‘He is my altar, I his holy place’ Johnson brings a depth of voice and feeling that is mellow and controlled, yet strong and rich. He is finely accompanied by James Baillieu in sensitive playing where, in certain passages, there is almost a Debussian beauty.

Britten’s Canticle II Op.51 (1952) was first performed by Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears and Britten at the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. At this time Britten was working on his next opera Gloriana. A setting from the Chester Miracle play concerning Abraham and Isaac, the Canticle can be performed equally well with a soprano, boy treble or countertenor as in this recording. Certainly there is a more ethereal sound to the opening using a countertenor and in this performance Ben Johnson and countertenor Christopher Ainslie blend wonderfully. To my ears, there is a strange anticipation of the War Requiem (I am thinking of the Libera me where the baritone sings ‘even the wells sunk too deep for war.’). When Ben Johnson suddenly rises up alone he is magnificent, then as they weave around each other they individually give beautiful performances. Ainslie is never sterile but very characterful. Both bring out the almost operatic flavour of the work. As tenor and countertenor join towards the end, the effect is mesmerising after the very human sounds of both soloists in the preceding part. The duet coda is beautifully done, so controlled and sensitive.

Canticle III Op.55 (1954) was written three months after the premiere of Britten’s operaThe Turn of the Screw. Britten had been deeply moved by Edith Sitwell’s poem Still Falls the Rain when John Amis asked him to write something for a memorial concert for the brilliantly gifted pianist , Noel Mewton-Wood, who had given the first performance of the revised version of Britten’s Piano Concerto. Mewton-Wood had taken his own life. Britten said to Sitwell that he found ‘something very right for the poor boy’ in her verses. Dennis Brain, himself tragically killed in a car crash only two years later, played the horn part in the first performance.

As Canticle III opens, so ominous with piano and horn, we are very much back to earth after the last Canticle. Ben Johnson enters, bringing a feeling of controlled anxiety before sudden anger at the words ‘Christ that each day, each night, nails there’. He manages the shift from anxious to anger, brilliantly. It is how Johnson handles the subtle shift of emotions that marks out this performance as special, if unsettling.

Mark Owen (horn) and James Baillieu (piano) handle the difficult and sometimes spare textures of Britten’s writing exceptionally well. It ends wonderfully with the tenor and horn blended superbly together, so much so that the horn sounds almost like a countertenor.

Britten’s Canticle IV Op.86 (1971), a setting of verses by T S Eliot, was first performed at the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival. Some commentators remarked on the apparent simplicity of the setting, wondering if it was merely written as a vehicle for James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk. It was indeed written for them but this new work was more than just a new vehicle for valued colleagues. The vocal writing is masterly though the writing is spare and exceptionally difficult. It must be remembered that this was Britten’s late period with his opera Death in Venice that would feature roles for Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk.

In this performance the blending of countertenor, tenor and baritone, in a kind of strict harmony, works exceptionally well, rising to operatic drama as the Canticle progresses. It shows all three soloists to be ideally characterful and in fine voice in this taxing vocal writing. How they pick up on the text and leave off is brilliantly done. James Baillieu, who gives no less a performance, brings the Canticle to a fine conclusion.

Britten had received cardiac treatment in early 1974 but by August there was news that he had just completed his Canticle V Op.89 (1974), another setting of T S Eliot, his poem The Death of Narcissus. Whilst some have linked Eliot’s Narcissus with Tadzio from Death in Venice, it also seems plausible that the composer drew a comparison with his own physically broken state. 

This setting for tenor and harp is even more unsettling, not only in the stark style of late Britten, but in the subject matter of the text. Johnson manages to hold the line of music together in singing of exquisite control and is sensitively accompanied by Lucy Wakeford (harp).

Inevitably people will want the Britten/Pears recording on Decca. Pears’ voice has that distinctive quality that we all tend to associate with Britten’s vocal works. Nevertheless, Johnson is superb in these works in an excellent recording that will give endless pleasure.

There are informative notes by Ben Johnson and full texts. 

The Classical Reviewer, Bruce Reader

March 2013

There’s nothing precious or pained about Ben Johnson’s tenor in his admirable recording of the five Canticles. The tone is sturdy, open and direct. 

Geoff Brown, The Times

February 2013
Tenor Ben Johnson, accompanied by James Ballieul, performs Britten’s five Canticles. The music embraces a variety of styles, including song, opera, cantata and chamber music. The album includes contributions from countertenor Christopher Ainslie and baritone Benedict Nelson. Released as part of the celebration of Britten’s centenary, this CD comes highly recommended.

The Northern Echo, Gavin Engelbrecht

February 2013

One of the more interesting of the tide of Britten centenary tributes, The Canticles features the five vocal settings composed at various points between 1947 and 1974, in which the ostensible religious themes disguise more secular interests – the barely veiled homoeroticism of Francis Quarles’ 17th-century adoration of Christ in "Canticle I", the allegorical linking of Blitz and Crucifixion in the Edith Sitwell powem used for "Canticle III" etc. Set to piano parts occasionally reflecting the influence of the French Romantics, the most intriguing realisations are those on which tenor Ben Johnson is joined by other voices – with baritone and countertenor as the three Magi in "Canticle IV", and most sublimely, paired with countertenor for the Abraham and Isaac story of "Canticle II". 

The Independent

February 2013

Britten’s canticles span virtually his whole creative life with the first, My beloved is mine appearing in 1947 after Albert Herring and the last The Death of St Narcissus in 1974 after Death in Venice. Each is written for a different combination of voice and instruments but the thread running through all of them is the tenor voice; notably the voice of Peter Pears. Ben Johnson was recently seen at ENO singing the role of Alfredo in the new production of La Traviata. This recording was made in association with the BBC. It is dedicated to Johnson’s teacher, Neil Mackie, who was himself a pupil and friend of Pears, so Johnson comes from a fine pedigree.

Canticle I, My Beloved is Mine sets poetry by the 17th century Francis Quarles, who wrote almost exclusively religious poetry. At first sight the poem is a meditation on the ecstasy of man’s relationship to God, but Britten’s treatment of the text  has led commentators to wonder how much the result is about homosexuality. The result is at times surprisingly direct, for all the floridness of the vocal writing.

Ben Johnson sings with an admirable firmness of tone and great flexibility. His performances are richly characterful, with his voice surprisingly strong and quite full. He brings a range of tone and colour to his performance, with beautiful placement of the voice. James Baillieu is a sympathetic and vigorous accompanist.

Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac was written for Pears and Kathleen Ferrier who had created the title role in the English Opera Group’s performances of The Rape of Lucretia.  Britten had recently finished Billy Budd and rather interestingly there is a link here because Melville quotes Abraham and Isaac in his novella. Britten brilliantly encapsulates an entire operatic canvas with just 2 singers, a piano and a 15 minute piece.

Johnson is joined by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie and the two combine for a wonderfully magical and haunting opening. The two voices are in contrast, with Johnson all firmness and vigour, Ainslie slightly covered tone but nicely free particularly in the top register. The two combine to create an intense and very personal drama which brings out the very operatic feel of the canticle.

The tone darkens with Canticle III, Still falls the rain which was written for a memorial concert for Noel Mewton-Wood who had committed suicide; the piece also reflects Britten’s fascination with the twelve-tone system. It was written just three months after the premiere ofThe Turn of the Screw and both works use theme and variations.

Johnson’s care for the words really comes over in the third canticle, combined with a dark intensity of line. Both he and horn player Martin Owen bring a haunting beauty to the work, and the way they combine in the final moments is magical. Edith Sitwell’s words are strong, and Britten’s response is surprisingly tough. Johnson’s vibrant tones create a hauntingly intense performance. I was pleased to note that the performers recorded the original canticle on its own, and not the longer sequence The Heart of the Matter which Britten and Pears created later.

The final two canticles both set T.S. Eliot poetry, and they stand either side of Britten’s final operatic work Death in Venice. Canticle IV, The Journey of the Magi was premiered by James Bowman, Peter Pears and John Shirley Quirk, all of whom performed in Death in Venice. Britten’s setting of Eliot’s poem is masterly in the way it convey’s the sheer uneasiness of the Magi, making you feel the cold and using changing time signatures to convey the awkwardness of the journey.

There is profound beauty in the way Ainslie, Johnson and baritone Benedict Nelson combine with Baillieu’s nervous, edgy piano. For the narrative sections, each voice is quite dramatic in their solo contributions but the three come together in a way which is poignant, with each of the three voices being perfectly placed.

Canticle V, The Death of St Narcissus sets a curious piece of juvenilia by Eliot. Johnson copes well with the flowery text and convinces that there is a depth and beauty to it. He is superbly accompanied by Lucy Wakeford’s harp.

Time and again in these performances I was struct by how much care Johnson takes with the placement of words and music, and by the richness that he brings to these pieces. All five are heavily text based works, and Johnson shows that he has learned to not only cope with the texts, but to render them with eloquence. Johnson’s voice is rich and fully on the edge of moving away from a lyric, but he sings with a powerful sense of line and a sophisticated use of tonal colour palate.  

James Baillieu is far more than just a sympathetic supporter, and his fully Johnson’s partner. You might have accounts of the canticles by other, better known singers, but I can recommend this new one for its intelligence and insight.

Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill

February 2013
Ben Johnson is rising rapidly through the richly stocked ranks of young British tenors. His musical range is wide (as demonstrated by the current ENO production of La Traviata), but Johnson has already made a particular name for himself singing Britten, as is confirmed by this very fine disc of the five canticles composed for Peter Pears between 1947 and 1974. 
Only the first in the sequence, My Beloved Is Mine, is solely for tenor and piano; the others all introduce either a second voice or another instrument. Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie joins Johnson for the second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, while Benedict Nelson, a baritone, combines with both of them in the fourth, The Journey of the Magi. In the third, Still Falls the Rain, a solo horn (Martin Owen) insinuates itself, while in the last, The Death of St Narcissus, a harpist (Lucy Wakeford) replaces James Baillieu, the recording’s wonderfully alert pianist. 
If the other vocal contributions don’t always quite match Johnson’s impeccable phrasing and subtle control and colouring, this is nonetheless a superb collection containing some of the most intensely beautiful of all Britten’s vocal writing.

The Guardian, Andrew Clements

February 2013

Tenor Ben Johnson, accompanied by James Baillieu, performs Britten’s five Canticles. The music embraces a variety of styles, including song, opera, cantata and chamber music. The album includes contributions from countertenor Christopher Ainslie and baritone Benedict Nelson. Released as part of the celebration of Britten’s centenary, this CD comes highly recommended.

Northern Echo, Gavin Engelbrecht

  1. Canticle I, Op. 40: My beloved is mine – Benjamin Britten – 8.04
  2. Canticle II, Op. 51: Abraham and Isaac – Benjamin Britten – 17.01
  3. Canticle III, Op. 55: Still Falls the Rain ? the Raids, 1940, Night and Dawn – Benjamin Britten – 12.01
  4. Canticle IV, Op. 86: The Journey of the Magi – Benjamin Britten – 11.13
  5. Canticle IV, Op. 86: The Journey of the Magi – Benjamin Britten – 7.40