A Vibrant Ceremony of Benjamin Britten Carols

Q2 Music Album of the Week for December 31, 2012

Monday, December 31, 2012

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.

 

"A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas"
Hyperion RecordsBuy 

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Comments [2]

Karen Zunich

Yes! Beautiful Christmas music deserves to be aired through the actual 12 Days of Christmas. After weeks of hustle and bustle it's a wonderful treat to relax with the music of the season through the entire season. This Benjamin Britten album is lovely.

Jan. 04 2013 05:39 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I love this piece, particluarly with women's voices (sorry, Benjamin!). Thanks for including it, and for being so bold in these commercial times as to play a Christmas album during the actual 12 days of Christmas, instead of allowing the season to die off as the main airwaves station has done.

Jan. 02 2013 04:27 PM

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Q2 Music's Album of the Week is our weekly review of the newest and most dynamic contemporary classical releases. It focuses on musical discovery, world premiere recordings and fresh perspectives on today's classical landscape. Read our review and stream the album on-demand for one week only at www.wqxr.org/q2music/

 

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