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Britten - A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas - Gramophone

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As the Britten centenary looms into view, it is good to be able to offer an enthusiastic welcome to this sparkling disc of two of his 1940s ‘classic’ scores. A Ceremony of Carols (recorded in 2007, early in Stephen Layton’s directorship at Trinity College) is sung here by the evenly blended upper voices of his chapel choir. Layton’s flowing speeds underline the dramatic sequence of the carols (which are so often cherry-picked and shoehorned into miscellaneous programmes). All the solo performances are impeccably shaped and harpist Sally Pryce makes light work of the fiendish accompaniments.

The choral singing is just as enjoyable in the main work on the disc, the cantata Saint Nicolas (1947-48), whose introduction flows seamlessly from the end of the Ceremony‘s Recession. Although his overall timing is some four minutes slower that Steuart Bedford (in the same venue – All Hallows, Gospel Oak), the music doesn’t drag. Layton even makes a convincing case for the score’s occasional clumsy moments (such as the transition from the end of the fugal section at ‘Serve the Faith’.

Allan Clayton makes the role of Nicolas entirely his own. What a glorious voice! I was reminded of the clarity of Wilfred Brown. Not a hint, too, of any Pear-isms, although I missed the astringency that Philip Langridge (on Naxos) brought, for example, to the third movement, in which Nicolas devotes himself to God.

The hearty sailors, Pickled Boys and St Trinian’s-like piano duettists are all on top form. This is a beautiful and deeply affecting recording.

Geoffrey Norris

Britten’s music for everyone

Caroline Gill and conductor Stephen Layton explore the score for Britten’s Saint Nicolas and marvel at the composer’s ability to tailor his style for both professional and amateur performers.

Stephen Layton hardly knows where to put himself when he sits down. We have met to discuss the score of Britten’s Saint Nicolas, a cantata written for the centenary of Lancing College in Sussex, scored for mixed choir, three solo boys’ voices, solo tenor, piano duet, strings and percussion. Layton has just recorded the work, together with A Ceremony of Carols, with Trinity College Choir, the Holst Singers, the choristers of London’s Temple Church and the City of London Sinfonia for Hyperion, and is (happily) very pleased at the prospect of chatting through the actual music. ‘I’m not usually lucky enough in interviews to be able to talk about the music itself like this,’ he says, flipping excitedly back and forth  through the pages. ‘Usually I’m discussing recording plans.’

And it’s interesting simply to look at the notes on the page. The hymn tunes and harmonisations are set out in broad white notes: watching the music progress through the solo passages and the choral sections into the congregational music is to see the music thin out from dense black notes into white in a formation that almost looks like a painting. My own feeling has always been that Britten’s suscpetibility to close examination is borne out partly through the vusual beauty of his notes on the page – it is possible to see, as well as hear, just how seamlessly he broadens, focuses and transitions – and I wonder if Layton shares that view?

‘You can show in just one movement how that works because he oscillates between the different elements so sucessfully. In the space of three-and-a-half minutes, he transitions from gorgeous piano duet to sailors singing at the tops of their voices to off-stage thunder and lightening, reduced to the old man Nicolas saying his prayers in a virtual monotone. That seems to me to be extreme contrast, both visually and aurally.’
One thing it’s not possible to immediately divine from looking at the page, though, is just how simple it is. Maybe, this is, in fact, another of Britten’s strengths: an ability to bring out the best in young and amateur musicians through music that is deceptively challenging and satisfying in its simplicity. For instance, Britten will use unchanging time signatures that can either underpin a straight simple passage that all choirs could grapple with, or allow a more complicated, aleatoric passage to keep repeating a motif to create a greater sense of freedom than restriction.

‘And this is all particularly true where the boys are singing their “Alleluias”,’ says Layton. ‘There’s an honesty there, which he creates through a simple tonal palette, similar to the repeated marching-bass of “Famine tracks us down the lanes” – he gives us something to latch on ton and hear as simple, not overwrought.’

But doesn’t that only really work as a concept if the properly contrasts it with other sections of the music, which is hard to do when he is trying to create such a universally accessible piece? ‘But he does manage it, though. When the the tenor sings on his own, “My parents died” – this is where we see the other side of Britten that is not writing community music for everyone to take part in. It’s when you get, if you like, his mature composition where it’s deliberately more sophisticated.’

Here, Layton smiles again at the piece’s coherence and sense, and points out just what extensive contrast there is in the styles contained within the score. ‘We can see variety in all the movements,’ he says, ‘which if you were to – as you can so easily do with iTunes – click at the start of each movement, would make you thinkk “Good grief – is this the same piece?”‘

Britten - A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas
Hyperion Records CDA67946