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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
St. Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948) [45:20]
Christís Nativity (1931) [16:16]
Psalm 150, Op 67 (1962) [4:21]
Philip Langridge, tenor, David Owen Norris, piano, Rolf Hind, piano, Joseph Cullen, organ, Nicholas Elstob, the young Nicolas, Tom Jackman, Sebastian Stent and Henry Manning, the pickled boys.
The Tallis Chamber Choir, The English Chamber Orchestra (St. Nicolas) The BBC Singers (Christís Nativity); The New London Childrenís Choir, London Schools Symphony Orchestra (Psalm 150). Steuart Bedford, conductor.
Recorded on 16-17 March 1996 (Nicolas, Psalm) and 21 March 1996 (Christís Nativity) at All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
NAXOS 8.557203 [66:00]

 

Benjamin Britten had a love for working with amateur musicians. He was remarkably adept at writing music for them that is always accessible, but never condescending. An exemplary case in point is the cantata St. Nicolas, which was commissioned by Peter Pearsí old school, Lancing College. There are five parts that require the skills of a professional musician, with the remainder easily handled by less-experienced performers. As there is little actual information about the life of the fourth century saint, librettist Eric Crozier based his tale on many of the legends that surround him to build a portrait.

One of the inherent problems in recording the works of Britten is that the composer himself recorded or supervised recordings of practically his entire output. And along with the composer came his hand-picked performers, with all of their quirks and foibles. Valuable as these often marvelous performances are, we can be grateful for the passage of enough time to allow for new interpretations of Brittenís music, and for the chance for a new generation of performers to try their hand at parts written especially for specific singers. It is particularly pleasant to hear someone other than Peter Pears singing the role of Nicolas. While Pears was a singer of unique gifts and exemplary musicianship, one still must deal with the unusual and often unpleasant timbre of his voice. I confess that Pearsí singing is an acquired taste, which I long ago acquired. It is, nonetheless, high time for new blood, and Philip Langridge rises comfortably to the occasion.

Although the influence of Pears is evident in Mr. Langridgeís singing, his is an instrument with a more accurate pitch center, and a more focused core. Agile and lyrical, his singing is also pointed and dramatic, and it is clear that he is sympathetic to the holy character of Nicolas. He negotiates the sometimes-jagged vocal lines with ease, and makes tuneful even the most disjunctive lines.

Steuart Bedford, Brittenís musical heir and current artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival, made a number of outstanding recordings of Britten works on the now defunct Collins label, including this one. Fortunately, Naxos seem to have purchased the Britten part of the Collins catalogue, and are bringing the recordings out under their own banner and at their exceptional price. Mr. Bedford is an able conductor, with a fine sense of dramatic pacing. The Tallis Chamber Choir sings with gusto and enthusiasm, and with excellent balance, intonation and blend. Of particular merit is the loving rendition of the Piety and Marvelous Works of Nicolas (movement 8), which is delivered with remarkable beauty and sincerity.

Christís Nativity was composed in 1931 while Britten was still a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Except for two excerpts, the work remained unpublished and unperformed during the composerís lifetime. A forerunner of his early masterpiece A Boy was Born, the work was probably inspired by a volume of Christmas Carols that Britten received as a gift from his sister Barbara. Its construct as a sequence of texts bound together by a common theme was to become a frequent device for Britten in later years as exemplified in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, The Spring Symphony and Nocturne,

I have often railed against the idea of insisting that every note that a famous composer penned be published and performed. It stands to reason that as fine a composer as Britten must have been a good judge of the quality of his own work, and this, along with A.M.D.G. and a recently published early Jubilate Deo clearly show that the composer knew what he was doing when he shelved the scores. Although they are atmospheric to a point, the text underlay, the extremes of range and the lack of clarity in the text settings are serious detractions to these pieces. The BBC Singers do an admirable job in their attempt to breathe life into these carols, but one hearing demonstrates the obvious difficulties and challenges in the music itself; difficulties and challenges that bear no ultimate reward. There are certainly enough choral masterworks by Britten to make me question the necessity of trotting out works that the composer himself rejected.

True to his motto to be useful and for the present, Psalm 150, written for the centenary of Brittenís own preparatory school in Lowestoft, is scored for whatever treble and bass instruments may be available with piano and percussion. Obviously an occasional piece, one might suspect that it is more fun to play and sing than to hear. Nonetheless, it has a certain joie de vivre about it, and it is brief enough not to be too offensive.

Lloyd Moore provides concise and informative program notes, and the sound quality is up to the standard that was Collins Classics. Kudos goes to Naxos for making this catalogue available. It is a bit of a shame however that some rather inferior companion material mires the fine reading of St. Nicolas.

Kevin Sutton

 



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