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

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Stephen Layton transformed this from an average, middle-class seasonal celebration into a magnificent musical event

Mulled wine, mince pies, crackers — and hymn sheets: great excitement at the St John’s Smith Square Christmas Festival when a massive audience met the massed forces of the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, the Holst Singers, boys from the Temple Church Choir, and the City of London Sinfonia for a performance of Britten’sSt Nicolas.

This was a Stephen Layton spectacular. And that’s what transformed the evening from a musically average, quintessentially middle-class English seasonal celebration into a magnificent musical event. All these choral and orchestral forces are, miraculously, under Layton’s sway — and all are now intensely focused, thrillingly articulate and searchingly musically literate. As they processed up the outer aisle, with Layton conducting rather as though he were leading a pipe band, the voices were robustly supported, from the very core of the diaphragm. And throughout the evening phrasing was supple and lithe, with the verbal enunciation and communication muscular and meticulous.

And the audience didn’t get away with slack work, either. The two hymns (which Britten inserts into the drama rather as Bach did with the chorales in his Passions) were rigorously rehearsed during the interval. All People that on Earth do Dwell roared out of the great contrapuntal chorus of invocation. And God certainly did move in a mysterious and awe-inspiring way at the work’s grand finale.

The tenor Allan Clayton, now suitably shaggy and bearded after his time with Castor and Pollux at English National Opera, was powerful and ardent as St Nicolas himself, holy in half-voice, fearless in persecution. And Benedict Davies, Frederick MacBruce, Luke McWatters and Daniel Traves raised their young treble voices to glorify God and peal out their alleluias from the middle of the nave.

Before the interval, the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge had appeared alone in a lusty and rhapsodic account of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Women’s voices, brightly blended and with a strong resilient core, bounced their consonants through lines of lusty Latin, sang sweet solos, and were accompanied by the exceptionally delicate and scintillating harp playing of Sally Pryce.

Hilary Finch