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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948) [50:14]
Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Op. 27 (1942) [9:56]
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
Corydon Singers; Choristers of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; Girls of Warwick University Chamber Choir; English Chamber Orchestra/Matthew Best
rec. All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, October 1988
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55378 [60:14] 
Experience Classicsonline

I was sixteen years old the first time I found myself in the same room as a professional tenor. Martyn Hill it was, and he had ventured up to the North of England, probably taking his life in his hands, to sing in my school’s production of Saint Nicolas. I was struggling at the bottom half of the piano duet when Hill’s opening phrase “Across the tremendous bridge” almost blew me away. Nobody had ever told me that a real singer’s voice was as loud as that. My concentration was shot to pieces for most of the rehearsal.

Some two years earlier A Ceremony of Carols and Peter Grimes had converted me, if I may put it that way, to the music of Benjamin Britten, a profound admiration that continues to this day. Saint Nicolas was great fun to do. I don’t know how many times I have come back to it since then, but I certainly haven’t listened to it, nor looked at the score, for many years. There are some marvellous things in it. I remember being fascinated by the musical sleight of hand the composer employed in the first movement, where the violins - just one of them at first - seemed to be playing in keys totally opposed to what was going on in the rest of the ensemble. I thought it the best of the movements, and still do. In the second movement the birth of the Saint is recounted in music which is a foretaste of Sammy’s bath in The Little Sweep, and the tenor’s sudden “God be glorified!”, as the adult Nicolas, after the series of exclamations taken by a boy treble, is pure theatre. One can almost hear the slap of the water on the side of the boat in He journeys to Palestine, and the music is beautifully becalmed once the storm abates. Then the passages for the main choir in His piety and marvellous works provided interesting material for those of us struggling with four-part harmony at the time. But the rosy tint has faded with the years. The work was composed to celebrate the centenary of Lancing College, Peter Pears’ old school, and frankly, I don’t think the composer’s heart was in the job. The solo tenor writing is masterly but its intermittently neurotic character now seems at odds with the rest of the work. Britten’s idea that the “congregation” sings the hymns which close each half of the work was novel and might just work; but the scrubbing strings that accompany the hymns are dispiriting, and they seemed much better integrated into the drama when he returned to the idea later, in Noye’s Fludde. It felt like heresy, at sixteen, to find the fugal writing which precedes the first hymn self-conscious and uninspired; and I never dared even entertain the thought, as I now do, that the whole of the last movement is so poor that one wonders why so fastidious and self-critical a composer allowed it to see the light of day.

This is a predictably fine performance under the sympathetic guidance of Matthew Best. Anthony Rolfe Johnson plays Nicolas with great intelligence and understanding, but he sounds rather strained at times. Then again, so does Philip Langridge in the rival Naxos version, recorded in the same church eight years later by Collins. I marginally prefer this version as I find Matthew Best’s reading rather too affectionate at times. In His piety and marvellous works, for example, the tendency to linger over cadence points only adds to the already dangerously saccharine atmosphere, and I prefer Steuart Bedford’s simpler way with the music, both here and elsewhere. This is a marginal point, however, and a matter of taste. The choral singing and orchestral playing on the Hyperion issue are exemplary.

There is more good than bad, on balance, in Saint Nicolas, but even so, the first few notes of Britten’s exquisite Op. 27, written some six years earlier, and which follows on the disc, come as something of a relief. Britten had collaborated with Auden during his years in the United States, but the rather strait-laced composer felt increasingly ill at ease with the poet’s far from straight-laced lifestyle. The three poems that make up the text were dedicated to Britten, and hardly represent a conventional homage to music’s patron saint. Indeed, Saint Ben is really the subject, or rather, the saint that Auden would have liked Ben to become. It is a difficult text but one which Britten quite brilliantly translates into music - and I use the phrase deliberately. The choral writing is astonishingly accomplished, full of light and air, and Britten rarely penned a passage as beautiful as the one beginning with the words “O dear white children casual as birds”. It is beautifully sung here by soprano soloist Janet Coxwell, and the magnificent choir give as fine an account of the piece as I have ever heard.

William Hedley 

 


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