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Britten - A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas - The Arts Desk

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2013 will be Britten’s centenary, so brace yourself for an onslaught of new and reissued recordings over the next 12 months. Saint Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols remain two of the most beguiling, approachable works Britten ever composed. Hearing the opening of this performance of A Ceremony of Carols is initially a bit of a shock – Stephen Layton uses female voices instead of the usual boys’ choir. The sound is smoother, much less raw. Interestingly, the first 1942 performance was sung by womens’ voices, though children were used by the composer for his first recording, noting that their “occasional roughness was easily outweighed by their freshness and naivety”. Layton’s singers do project beautifully, and their sheer security makes this Ceremony a gorgeous, invigorating experience. Zoe Brown and Katherine Watson take solo roles; the latter’ account of Balulalow is sublime, aided by Sally Pryce’s inspired harp obbligato.

Just as good is the cantata Saint Nicolas, premiered in 1948, brilliantly encapsulating Britten’s ability to blend, in his words, “subtlety and simplicity” in a work written for amateurs to perform alongside professionals. The mood shifts are disconcerting, solemnity constantly yielding to whimsicality. It invariably works. The moment when the adult Nicolas (beautifully sung by tenor Allan Clayton) suddenly reveals himself in The Birth of Nicolas will induce goose pimples of delight in sceptical listeners. I’m always close to tears as the hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ steals in halfway through the final movement. Britten can be a difficult composer really to love, but this work is one of those occasions where everything works magnificently. Hyperion’s resonant, fruity sound is glorious, as is the cover shot of John Piper’s witty stained glass window.

Graham Rickson

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