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Britten - A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas - Music Web International

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 A Ceremony of Carolsis most frequently heard sung by boy trebles – there is also an SATB arrangement by Julius Harrison, which, for all Harrison’s skill doesn’t really work in my opinion. However, in his excellent booklet note Mervyn Cooke points out that the piece, which Britten largely composed while on his sea voyage back from the USA to Britain in 1942, was conceived for female voices. Britten composed seven of the settings while on the Atlantic; later, between 1942 and 1943 he added the processional and recessional movements, the Interlude for solo harp and ‘That yongë child’. There have been a number of recordings by female choirs but they are much rarer than performances by boys.

Listening to this superb new version by the ladies of the Trinity College choir it must be acknowledged that boys can impart different qualities to the music. In particular the more cultured sound of these young ladies doesn’t have the edge that boys can bring in particular to carols such as ‘This little babe’ and ‘Deo gracias’. However, the Trinity choir is not short of attack and precision in these numbers and any lack of ‘edge’ is a small price to pay; the wonderful singing of the Trinity ladies compensates strongly. Their singing is committed, splendidly controlled, pure toned, utterly secure in pitching – even the best boy trebles can sometimes pitch ‘in the crack’ – and expressive. Furthermore, their diction is impeccably clear. There are two excellent soprano soloists, Zoë Brown and Katherine Watson – Miss Brown is particularly good in ‘That yongë child’. The harpist, Sally Pryce, also performs with distinction. In short, this is one of the best performances ofA Ceremony of Carolsthat I’ve heard.
The full Trinity choir and the Holst Singers join forces forSt. Nicolas. There are a number of versions in the catalogue but it so happens that the one which I’ve had in my collection for many years – along with Britten’s own classic account with Peter Pears – is also a Hyperion disc, now on their Helios label. This was made by Matthew Best and his Corydon Singers with the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role. The recording, which was set down in 1988, was made in the same venue as this newcomer, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak. In hisreviewof that disc William Hedley very fairly drew attention to the work’s unevenness. Acknowledging that, I’ve always had a soft spot for the work. I agree with Mervyn Cooke that it’s an excellent example of Britten’s ability to involve amateurs and professionals – and even the audience. Cooke also quotes a review of the première in which reference was made to “the composer’s genius for securing the most telling effects by the simplest of means”. I think that’s spot on. The moment when the three pickled boys make their entrance, singing ‘Alleluia’, may strike many as “cheesy” but it’s jolly effective, as I was reminded only recently during a fine live performance in Coventry Cathedral (review). And then there’s that moment, after the death of Nicolas when, oh-so-quietly, the organ intones the closing hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, itself an adroit choice. It’s such a simple musical gesture – just six bars of subdued chords – yet it changes the mood completely and in a most imaginative way. Even though most of Britten’s operas lay in the future by 1948 he was clearly someone who already possessed a fine feeling for the theatrical. He would go on to write many more sophisticated works butSt. Nicolasconnects with its listeners strongly and should not be underrated.
This new performance makes the best possible case for it. Comparing it with the earlier Best performance the newcomer sounds more dramatic – I think the recording is a bit closer and is perhaps cut at a higher level, There are some instances where Matthew Best seems a wee bit more expansive than Stephen Layton, but never to the music’s disadvantage, I feel. I think that Best scores in one way: he uses extra singers – members of four choirs – to join in the two congregational hymns. That’s particularly apparent in ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and it was worth the extra trouble in order to accommodate Britten’s wish for congregational involvement. In one other respect I prefer Best to Layton. In the last hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, Layton speeds up a bit after verse one though that’s not marked in the vocal score. Best maintains his broad speed and, as a result, catches more the spirit of wonder and majesty. It’s only a small point but, of course, this is our last impression of the performance.
In other respects honours are about even. I agree with William Hedley that Anthony Rolfe Johnson sometimes sounds under pressure though I still like his performance a lot. Allan Clayton, a younger singer, of course, has no such issues. Rolfe Johnson’s voice is, by nature, a bit sweeter and his experience and sensitivity are greatly to be welcomed in such passages as ‘Nicolas devotes himself to God’, where his emotional range is impressive, and in the prayer that Nicolas sings after the stilling of the storm. But Clayton is by no means outshone when it comes to sensitivity. His accounts of both of the aforementioned passages are splendid and, in fact, I think he’s even more affecting in the way he delivers the quiet ending to ‘Nicolas devotes himself to God’. On the other side of the coin, though Rolfe Johnson is not lacking in vocal strength the virile, ardent tone that Clayton can produce at such passages as ‘I, Nicolas’ in the fifth movement is compelling. I’m glad to have both fine interpretations in my collection but, pressed to make a choice, I would now opt for Clayton, whose performance is very impressive.
The choral contributions to both performances are excellent. For Layton the combined forces of his two choirs deliver polished singing. In the fourth movement, depicting Nicolas’ storm-interrupted journey to Palestine, the men sing with vigour without ever forcing the tone and throughout the adult choirs give an exemplary account of Britten’s music. The boy trebles sing really well – Luke McWatters is confident and accurate in ‘The Birth of Nicolas – and the Gallery Choir of sopranos, which I think is comprised of some of the Trinity College singers, are beautifully placed in the sound picture and sing with delightful purity of tone. The instrumental playing is precise and excellently articulated.
I’m not about to discard my copy of the Matthew Best recording but, overall, I think this new Layton performance has a slight edge. The sound on the older recording is very good but the newcomer sounds more immediate and so is even more impressive. Much though I like Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role, Allan Clayton is more vivid and dramatic and he yields nothing to Rolfe Johnson when it comes to the more sensitive passages. What tilts the balance firmly in favour of the new issue is the very fine performance ofA Ceremony ofCarols– Best offersHymn to St Ceciliain a good performance but that’s not as generous a coupling. Hyperion always earns high marks for documentation and this new disc is no exception since the booklet essay by Mervyn Cooke is very good indeed and most informative.
No doubt there will be a glut of Britten recordings during his centenary year in 2013. Hyperion have got in early and set the bar high.



John Quinn

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