Music club's annual chamber music weekend

Tony Cooper A programme of song - conceived by the distinguished pianist Julius Drake for the Norfolk and Norwich Music Club's annual chamber music weekend - can be enjoyed in the intimacy of the acoustically-strong John Innes Centre, Colney Lane, Norwich, reflecting the work of composers who had the greatest influence on Benjamin Britten's song-writing.

Tony Cooper

A programme of song - conceived by the distinguished pianist Julius Drake for the Norfolk and Norwich Music Club's annual chamber music weekend - can be enjoyed in the intimacy of the acoustically-strong John Innes Centre, Colney Lane, Norwich, reflecting the work of composers who had the greatest influence on Benjamin Britten's song-writing.

Over three lovely and entertaining concerts - one on Saturday January 24 (7.30pm) and two on Sunday January 25 (11.30am/3pm) - all of Britten's five canticles will be sung by tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Nigel Cliffe while the distinguished counter-tenor Michael Chance will sing Canticle II Isaac and Abraham, Britten's folksong arrangements and a group of songs from Purcell's Orpheus Brittanicus, Richard Watkins will also be heard as the soloist in Beethoven's F major horn sonata and Lucy Wakeford will play Britten's Suite for Harp, op 83, written for the celebrated harpist Osian Ellis, a regular at the Aldeburgh Festival. It's a well-realised display piece and shows off the soloist's and the instrument's virtuosity.

The canticles tend to be grouped together, but they make an odd collection. They're not settings of the canticles of the Anglican liturgy - Te Deum, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - but they do deal specifically with Christian themes. The only thing they have in common - other than religious subject-matter - is the involvement of a tenor soloist. They were written specifically for Peter Pears.

The most popular of the group - Abraham and Isaac - is an appealingly-offbeat piece possessing a naïve and open-hearted strain in its score that perfectly suits the simple, guileless medieval text of the Chester Mystery Play that Britten chose to set. But the others are slightly more complex.

Still Falls the Rain - set to a poem by Edith Sitwell - attempts to link Christ's suffering and death with the horrors of the two world wars. Britten gives the text a spiky, aggressively atonal setting with some writing for horn that can, at times, seem wilfully ugly.

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Journey of the Magi and The Death of Saint Narcissus - the latter scored for harp because Britten was too ill to perform at the piano - are set to poems by TS Eliot - the former never directly refers to the Nativity and the latter conflates the legend of Saint Sebastian's martyrdom with the myth of Narcissus.

My Beloved is Mine - a sort of allegorical love poem to Christ using the refrain 'my beloved is mine and I am his' - comes from the Song of Solomon.

Schubert was a big influence on Britten and to mark this fact Schubert's Schwanengesang (Rellstab settings) - described by Schubert's publisher as 'the final blooms of Schubert's creative muse' - contains some of the composer's greatest music. It tells no particular story but the two sets of songs are linked by their poetic themes - nature, love and separation.

Another famous work by Schubert - also included in the same concert - is Auf dem Storm. Written in 1828 and based upon a text by Ludwig Rellstab it will be sung by James Gilchrist. It was composed for a concert of his own music on March 26, 1828, the first anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's death and, amazingly, the first public concert to feature solely Schubert's music. It was also to be the year of his death, too.

To conclude the Sunday morning concert Britten's folksongs for voice and piano will be sung by Nigel Cliffe and Michael Chance accompanied by Julius Drake. They include such heart-warming and well-loved songs as The Last Rose of Summer, The Foggy Foggy Dew, The Ashgrove, Sweet Polly Oliver, O Waly, Waly and a moving and tender setting of Down by the Salley Gardens.

Tickets from 01603 628319 (£15, students under 25 £5), Prelude Records, St Giles' Street, Norwich; further information from www.norwichchambermusic.co.uk