Exquisite music, exquisite singing (mostly), and exquisite pianism! But that may be my problem, that everything here is too exquisitely artfully self-conscious. I often find that I expect to enjoy the music of Benjamin Britten, based on his scores, more than I actually do when I hear it. But this is a matter of my own subjective response to the affect of his music, not a solid objectifiable criticism, so let's let it go.
The five "Canticles" are the substance of this performance; the seven 'Folksong Arrangements' are here only to fill out the CD, and I might have preferred another choice. The "Canticles" are structurally more like mini-cantatas than like Lieder, though the piano accompaniment inevitably suggests the latter. They are settings of rapturously (self-consciously?) mystical religious texts:
I - a 17th C verse-like elaboration of a single Biblical line [My beloved is mine, and I am his] written by Francis Quarles
II - a portion of the Chester Miracle Play, portraying the tale of Abraham and isaac
III - a portion of the poem 'The canticle of the Rose' by Edith Sitwell
IV - the 'Journey of the Magi' by poet TS Eliot
V - 'The death of Saint Narcissus', also by TS Eliot
These are all powerful mystical texts, tinged with the erotic fervor of the Song of Solomon or the poetry of St John of the Cross. The words would be musical even spoken in a monotone, so Britten's task was to expand and elaborate their music rather than to obfuscate or obliterate it. To my ears, he succeeded best with the first three Canticles, especially with the second, Abraham and Isaac. The two later settings of TS Eliot seem less in keeping with their texts to me; they roar when they should murmur. Eliot's poetry walks a fine line between banality and rapture -- as he put it himself, between "high sentence" and "obtuseness". Britten renders them too dramatic; the words are lost in the music.
My favorite track, easily, is Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, both for its musical delicacy and for its poignant representation of the Biblical tale of the father readying his son to be sacrificed as demanded by God. Tenor Ian Bostridge and countertenor David Daniels sing together with exquisite (there's that word again!) ensemble when they incant the command of God, the opening of the text. Then they interface their roles as father and son with just the right amount of dramatization. The music is spare, stark, transparent. Julian Drake's piano accompaniment glistens around their voices like rays of sunlight glancing off the altar.
My least favorite is Canticle III - Still Falls the Rain, a setting of a poem by the modern British poet Edith Sitwell in memorium of the air raids of 1940. Frankly, the text is too literary, too precious, too sanctimonious for the mood of aerial bombardment. The music is smudged, to my ears, by the inclusion of an obbligato for French horn; played in its lower register, the horn sounds bullocky and a trifle stagey.
Perhaps I risk offending someone by pondering the deeper significance of Britten's choices of texts. How far does the erotic mysticism of these poems, especially of the First Canticle, stretch toward homoerotic mysticism? And so what, if it does? Believe me, I'm a disciple of Spinoza; any flavor of mysticism makes me queasy. I raise the issue only because it impinges on the affective interpretation one might expect from the music. Perhaps that homoerotic 'frisson' was always basic to Britten's music. He died in 1976, just at the threshold of gay liberation and openness.
In any case, Benjamin Britten was Britain's strongest, craftiest composer since Purcell or Byrd, and the Five Canticles are among his most inventive and approachable compositions. They offer a kind of aesthetic bridge for listeners, from the baroque and the romantic repertoire of song settings to the modern.