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Benjamin: Written on Skin £16

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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76) BLEST CECILIA: Choral Works Volume 1Hymn to the Virgin (1930-34); A Hymn of Saint Cuthbert (1962)
Hymn to St.Peter Op 56A (1955);
Antiphon Op 56B (1955)
Te Deum in C (1934);
Jubilate Deo (1961);
Hymn to St. Cecilia Op 27 (1942)
Festival Te Deum (1944);
Rejoice in the Lamb Op 30 (1943)
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
Rec 1990s DDD
Compilation from Collins Classics 12862, 13702, 13432
CORO 16006 [62.56]


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This disc appears on The Sixteen’s own label and is the sixth that they have recently produced. The very sad demise of Collins Classics in 1998 left quite a hole in Contemporary British music’s available market. The label was the home for a lot of Britten as well as Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have acquired their Collins recordings and, repackaging them, are enabling new listeners to hear the superb music they recorded in the 90s and enable us to hear this magnificent choir at their very best. This disc is a gem and if you did not obtain it first time around now you can get it at bargain price.

Harry Christophers, in his introductory booklet note, comments "I am always astounded how years of misguided interpretation lead to a composer’s intentions being flagrantly ignored and then termed ‘tradition’ … but I didn’t really expect it in performances of more recent composer’s work. And so it is doubly refreshing to attempt to be faithful to Britten’s requests." Did he go back to the manuscripts? Perhaps this may account for occasional discrepancies between the printed score and what is actually heard. For example in ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ the treble solo in ‘My cat Jeffrey’ at the words " in the variety" the notes are quite different. And in the tenor solo section "For the flowers" the organ part, instead of the pedal dropping below the stave where marked, always plays one octave higher. Neither of these changes I find particularly advantageous.

There will be listeners who find these performances a little mannered or who ultimately prefer an all male choir particularly for the treble solos. Carys Lane is ideal, but any vibrato in a solo soprano like Nicola Jenkin and Ruth Dean may well seem out of place. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy. The disc opens with a delicious performance of Britten’s very early ‘Hymn to The Virgin’ and this is followed by a powerful performance of the ‘Hymn to St. Peter’, a piece that can often appear a little ungainly. The real revelation to me is the youthful Te Deum in C, which is rarely performed, (written for St. Mark’s Audley Street in London) with its fecundity of original ideas.

For the rest the performances, especially the tuning in music that is often more difficult than listeners may realize, are always excellent. The diction is as good as I have ever heard in these works, tempi are as marked in the scores and as one is used to.

The rest of the booklet notes by Peter Evans and David Matthews, who knew Britten very well, are compact and useful. The texts are given but the ‘Hymn to St. Peter’ is printed with three verses from the ‘Dies Irae’ text. This has nothing whatsoever to do with this CD!. ‘The Hymn to Saint Columba’ which was set in Latin is not translated.

Gary Higginson


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