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A Vibrant Ceremony of Benjamin Britten Carols

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Q2 Music Album of the Week

Unlike many of his contemporaries and forbears in the classical music world, Benjamin Britten loved writing pieces for children and amateur performers. Saint Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols beautifully represent this area of the composer’s interest.

That a polished new recording of these works from the Hyperion label emphasizes adult and highly-trained performers over the ones championed by the composer impacts how we experience this music.

Although the lovely, modal-tinged Middle English poems set by Britten in A Ceremony of Carols were originally conceived in 1942 for a women’s chorus and soloists accompanied by harp, Britten soon expressed a preference for children’s – and particularly boys’ – voices. “I think the little boys were enchanting,” the composer wrote in a letter in 1943 following a series of performances featuring such an ensemble. “The occasional roughness was easily overweighed by their freshness & naivety – something very special.”

While adults continue to perform the work regularly (it has been arranged for SATB chorus by Julius Harrison) younger voices imbue it with an irresistible lightness. Accompanied by Sally Pryce’s limpid-sparkling harp playing, the women of The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge sing with warmth and passion. But the heavier, vibrato-laced quality of the mature female voices fills out the filigree texture of Britten’s music.

Saint Nicolas also makes use of children’s voices – alongside a mixed adult chorus, a chamber orchestra and a tenor soloist. The work, which dramatically recounts legends from the titular holy man’s life, was commissioned in 1948 for a school’s centennial celebration and Britten scored it specifically for the resources on hand. As such, only the tenor soloist and lead instrumentalists require a high level of expertise.

The ultra professionalism of the forces involved in this recording’s version of Saint Nicolas — which also include the Holst Singers, the City of London Sinfonia, the Boys of the Temple Church Choir, tenor Allan Clayton and conductor Stephen Layton — captures the work’s harmonic and melodic ingenuity and narrative power. The performers approach the bright G major tonality and straightforward homophonic texture of “His Piety and Marvelous Works,” a choral ode to the Saint’s do-gooderly ways, with as much feeling and dexterity as they bring to the complex dissonances of “Nicolas Devotes Himself to God.”

That being said, in our increasingly fractured, specialized world, cultural events that bring performers of diverse capabilities together can play a crucial role in forging human connections. With catchy tunes that render it easy and fun for amateur singers to digest, and shifting tonalities and chromaticisms that provide plenty for professionals to chew on, Saint Nicolas represents “community music making” in its highest form. The “all-pro” recording is sonically vibrant even if it lacks this compelling ideological core.

Chloe Veltman

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