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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 – 1976)
The Golden Vanity Op.78 (1966)a
A Ceremony of Carols Op.28 (1942)b
Missa Brevis in D Op.63 (1959)c
Children’s Crusade Op.82 (1968)d
Choristers of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxfordabcd; Worcester College Chapel Choristersad; Victoria Davis (harp)b; Clive Driskill-Smith (pianoad and organc); Christian Wilson (piano)d; John Madden (percussiona and chamber organd); Oxfordshire Youth Percussion Ensembled; Stephen Darlington
Recorded: Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, July 2002 and March 2003


This generously filled release offers Britten’s major works for treble voices, of which the marvellous and deservedly popular A Ceremony of Carols Op.28 is one of his finest scores. It is well known and does not call for any further comments. I found the present performance immensely enjoyable and superbly sung.

The Missa Brevis Op.63 is as successful as A Ceremony of Carols. It is Britten at his best and his most inspired again: highly memorable tunes, catchy and clear rhythms. (You just have to listen to the crisp, syncopated rhythms in the Gloria …) No wonder that this work has also become popular, although it too is not easy to sing; but its challenges are ultimately quite rewarding. The boys here have obviously been fired by the music, and their reading is one of the many fine things on this disc.

The Golden Vanity Op.78 and Children’s Crusade Op.82 never really garnered the same popularity as either Missa Brevis or A Ceremony of Carols, although both were recorded under Britten’s supervision many years ago. (That recording of Children’s Crusade has been re-issued in the double CD set Britten: The Rarities on Decca 468 811-2 that I reviewed here some time ago.)

Although its subtitle Vaudeville for boys’ voices and piano might imply a somewhat lightish or lighter humorous work, The Golden Vanity presents "a tragic, typically Britten-esque hero; the lonely suffering boy, abandoned by all those around him" (Sophie Biddell in her excellent insert notes). Indeed, the music, and more particularly some unexpected harmonic clashes, rather belie the good nature of the work’s folksy sources. No matter how hard he tried, Britten could not but follow his own musical instinct, and express his innermost concerns. After all, despite its somewhat misleading subtitle, The Golden Vanity is a deeply serious work; but it may lack the direct appeal of A Ceremony of Carols or of The Little Sweep (the latter also dealing with the same idea, that of the lonely suffering boy, although the story has its happy end).

Children’s Crusade, setting one of Brecht’s most poignant poems (in a superb English translation by Hans Keller), does not achieve its aim easily either. Again, this is an utterly serious piece of music, cleverly designed so as to involve as many children as possible in conveying the rather desperate, bleak message of Brecht’s poem. I have never been able to respond wholeheartedly to what I firmly believe is a courageous, deeply sincere work. The fault may probably lie in the music which – considering its imaginative scoring – could have been made more gripping and arresting, rather than merely noisy. The percussion actually seems to rattle and bang along somewhat aimlessly without ever really achieving its full impact. These personal considerations, however, have nothing to do with this very fine and committed performance into which all concerned put all their heart.

All in all this is an outstanding release that deserves that warmest recommendation.

Hubert Culot

Benjamin Britten

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