A Ceremony of Carols
is here presented as at its first
performance sung by women’s voices. This makes for a smoother
but, as you might expect, less incisive tone than that of the
boys’ voices with which the work subsequently became more associated.
The young ladies of Trinity College Cambridge Choir here are pleasantly
smooth without becoming unctuously so. Yet neither do they lack
ruggedness from the opening force of ‘Wolcum Yule’, the first
carol of the sequence with spiritedly tumbling quavers contrasted
by the sheeny evocation of “Candelmesse”. The more adult lady
voices of the Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir bring a weightier
yet merry sound, less smooth, gutsier, rougher-edged, with more
rhythmic energy and closer to the sound of boys’ voices.
The work is framed by a procession and recession based on plainsong.
You experience a sense of the expanse of a chapel’s space and
air and sheer force of the utterance of Alleluias. This is particularly
the case in the Trinity recession where Stephen Layton has five
repeats of the closing Alleluias in comparison with just one in
the procession. Stephen Shellard has two repeats for both procession
and recession. Here you get more of a feeling of the vastness
of the cathedral and a sense of eager worship. The second carol,
‘There is no rose’, begins contentedly but grows more vigorous,
an English text haunted by Latin tag echoes. Layton contrasts
the two texts more sharply and you appreciate the smoothness of
the phrasing and soft yet firmly focused singing. ‘That yongë
child’ is a solo lullaby about the need for comfort in a bleak
environment. These two factors are nicely balanced at Trinity
by Zoë Brown whereas at Worcester Sarah Kings’ intent way stresses
the bleakness. ‘Balulalow’, alternating minor and major, is well
turned and satisfying from Layton and from Shellard precise yet
a touch careful.
‘As dew in Aprille’ from Layton is all brightness and energy.
There’s a comely interchange of the three voice parts toppling
over each other and wide dynamic contrast. In the carol Shellard
is notable for attack, animation and the rippling interchange
of a harder-edged sound. The close, echoing imitation of ‘This
little babe’, in the second verse makes this the most exciting
and memorable carol. Layton brings a frosty breathless quality.
Shellard, if not quite so vivid, still has plenty of gusto. Then
there’s an Interlude for harp, at 4:23 expansively played at Trinity
by Sally Pryce. She conveys a sense of having all the time in
the world to observe snow and ice glistening on the trees. There’s
a gradual increase in sonority then a falling far away. At 3:48
Catherine White at Worcester places more emphasis on the progression
of the journey. Most striking here is the less definite final
wandering into the distance.
Next, ‘In freezing winter night’ is a more macabre study in snow
with shivering harp backcloth. You notice with Trinity the voice
parts now clashing rather than tumbling and the tough layering
of force against force. It’s a pity that at the end of Trinity’s
closing solo the alternative standard G is used rather than Britten’s
preferred low G. This latter is provided by Worcester who place
more emphasis on Britten’s accents on the downbeats of the entries.
This gives the whole piece a more sinister edge. Worcester’s vocalization
is clear and pure, but Trinity’s diction is better. The ‘Spring
Carol’ finds Trinity’s two soloists relaxed, creamy, beautifully
catching its simple joyousness. Worcester’s soloists are clear
but less blithe. ‘Deo Gracias’ has from Trinity a ruggedness and
real snap which well matches its pitting at the end against harp
glissandi. The text is at first furtively delivered before becoming
increasingly sonorous. Worcester produce a sprightly account but,
a touch slower, lack Trinity’s bite. Overall Trinity are my preference.
What about couplings? Trinity bring Britten’s cantata, Saint
. As with the Ceremony
there’s an attractive
directness. Nicholas’s youth is in the barnstorming manner of
a musical with the lad declaiming ‘God be glorified’ all on E,
finely trumpeted by treble Luke McWatters. The transition from
boy to young man, treble to tenor and piano duet to organ is thrilling.
Tenor Allan Clayton is magnificent in the following ‘My parents
died’, a quintessential Britten arioso, whose distraught search
for peace is realized through humility. There’s a graphic exposition
of this latter quality in the arioso closing the following section
after its vivid portrayal of a storm engineered by Nicholas as
a lesson to godless sailors. This includes distant wailing for
female voices, sung by Trinity College Choir again. These are
transformed into more of an ethereal presence in the next section
when Nicholas is enthroned as bishop. Its hearty central fugue,
‘Serve the faith and spurn his enemies’, is even rougher hewn
than the exultant congregational close in which those female voices
provide a second verse descant to ‘All people that on earth do
‘Persecution sprang upon our church’ begins another anguished
arioso to jagged strings’ accompaniment. This is set up to reaffirm
the need for humility. Next those female gallery voices mourn
the loss of their three boys whom Nicholas resurrects to sing
Alleluia choruses echoed by the gallery ladies and then by everyone.
Structurally this could hardly be simpler yet it’s powerful and
moving, as is the transformation of opening weary trudge to closing
gleeful march. In between, and with more realism, there’s a chorus
becoming more desperate for the enjoyment of food and tetchy about
Nicholas’s reluctance to eat. The next section is framed by a
pastoral idyll of a warmth that’s telling because rarely found
in Britten. Its centre, featuring seven semi-choruses relating
miracles Nicholas performed, is ingenious but less memorable.
The same might be said of the opening of the final section, undeniably
climactic, in which Nicholas’s arioso earnestly welcomes death
as the chorus sings the Nunc dimittis
with a growing
yet also stark sense of resolution. Again the more straightforward
can be more involving: a quiet yet stately opening to the second
congregational hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. A second
verse sports a counter-melody for tenors and basses and there’s
a sonorously accompanied final stanza. Taken overall this stunning
performance is a fine achievement.
Worcester offer an agreeable selection of carols and hymns headed
by Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas carols
proceeds from folk material as part of the natural order of things.
It begins with ‘The truth sent from above’, a lucid exposition
of the fundamentals of scripture presented with clarity and ingenuousness
by baritone soloist Ben Cooper. Choral haloes emerge as part of
the landscape and in the version recorded here there’s a comforting
cello solo. The organ enters to highlight redemption. Next ‘Come
all ye worthy gentlemen’ is a sort of upbeat ‘God rest ye merry
gentlemen’ with a nicely balanced heartiness from the choir. Then
‘On Christmas night’ is brightly done by the soloist to which
the choir responds blithely. The finale, largely a reprise of
the second carol, scores highly in feel-good terms. Spirituality
is in shorter supply until the tellingly very soft Amen. This
quietly contemplative mood is maintained in the following Brahms
chorale prelude which is warm and tender. It also contains an
earnest hope for the future that is a particular joy of Christmas.
Three tracks on, interludes from this prelude return juxtaposed
with two verses of the Praetorius original hymn. There’s a third
with descant by Harrison Oxley who put this all together: an over-rich
mix for me.
century Resonemus Laudibus
racier, to which the choir responds wholeheartedly. The carilloning
accompaniment in David Willcocks’ arrangement showcases Worcester’s
new Quire organ. Unaccompanied voices shine for Elizabeth Poston’s
folk-tune arrangement, smoothly yet steadily presented, allowing
you to focus on the text and savour the increase and decrease
of the vocal parts. Terser and more markedly expressive is Goldschmidt’s
A tender shoot,
full of swells and ebbs deftly controlled.
The piano calls us to attention for the wan landscape of Steven
Kings’s ‘Carol’ which moves effectively to a strong climax acclaiming
Christ’s coming. The piano is more fluid, the voices more eager,
the climax more ecstatic in his O Tree
. For an even more
luminous climax go to Carl Rutti’s more succinct I wonder
as I wander
. Familiar hymns, O come, all ye faithful
and Hark! The herald angels sing
are presented at a good,
eager pace and feature the welcome contrasts of an unaccompanied
verse and a descant verse. This Away in a manger
the most well known one but its minor key well conveys cold stillness
yet also intimacy.