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Britten: St Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols, Dec 2011 - The Daily Telegraph

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I don’t regard myself as more than averagely sentimental and there isn’t too much music that reduces me to tears. But a moment in Britten’s St Nicolas does it with press-button certainty, when the pickled boys come back to life and sing their Alleluias. And as usual it had me passing off my snuffles as a cold last night at Smith Square where Stephen Layton performed the piece with combined forces from his various choral empires – and, as it turned out, four pickled boys rather than the specified three. I guess the extra was there for moral support: something you need when you’ve been pickled.

St Nicolas, it has to be said, is an odd piece. Loving it as I do, I wouldn’t change a note. But the eclectic juxtaposition of music-hall doggerel, baroque counterpoint, heldentenor solos, pristine English string writing, and a lilting, Faure-tribute section that always strikes me as the natural birthplace of John Rutter (I’m convinced it’s where those worryingly tuneful Christmas carols come from), is a real ragbag assortment.

Adding to the motley is the cheerfully demotic relationship of words to music you find in Albert Herring – which is no surprise when you remember that the Nicolas and Herring libretti were both by Eric Crozier and date from the same time: mid/late 1940s. That it all somehow fits together in a work of cartoon-vivid indestructibility is bizarre. And that it also manages to be enchanting, loveable and moving – well, that’s genius for you. Genius, what’s more, provided on a plate for amateurs.

St Nicolas is a community piece with in-built rough edges, designed to withstand wrong notes. It belongs in schools and church halls; and by those standards, last night’s performance was a bit too grand to be authentic. The choir of Trinity, Cambridge combined with the Holst Singers may be strictly speaking amateur, but amateur-elite. I’ve never heard a more precise or clean account.

But one amateur element you can’t escape in St Nicolas is the audience, whose participation in the community hymns works so well that Britten repeated the idea in Little Sweep and Noye’s Fludde. Requiring a quick, pre-performance rehearsal, it breaks down the divide between audience and artists, shifting the dynamic in a powerful way that makes you wish you were still allowed to join in the chorales in the Bach Passions.

So involved was the packed-out audience at Smith Square last night, its singing must have been audible in Vauxhall. And perhaps it was fanciful on my part but something in that audience singing struck me as defiant: like the educated middle-class of England making one last, rousing statement of its marginalised values. Was I totally alone in feeling this? Had I been so seduced by the disorienting pathos of the pickled boys that I was reading way too much significance into an ordinary event? Maybe. But at the time, that’s how it seemed.


Michael White