RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942) 1 [24:13]
Saint Nicholas, op. 42 (1948) 2 [49:15]
1-2Trinity College Cambridge Choir/Stephen Layton, 2Holst Singers, 2Boys of the Temple Church Choir, 2City of London Sinfonia, 2Allan Clayton (tenor), 1Sally Pryce (harp)
rec. 1Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, 10-13 September 2007, 2All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 15-16 January 2012. DDD. Booklet includes sung texts.
HYPERION CDA67946 [73:30]
Hodie: Advent to Christmas Day
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958)
Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1921)1 [11:51]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942) 2 [23:02]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Chorale prelude ‘Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen’ (1896) 3 [3:00]
ANON (14th century) arr. David WILLCOCKS
Resonemus Laudibus 4 [1:53]
ANON arr. Elizabeth POSTON
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree 5 [4:08]
Harrison OXLEY (1933 – 2009)
A Rose Carol (after Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) and BRAHMS) 6 [5:52]
Otto GOLDSCHMIDT (1829 – 1907)
A tender shoot 7 [2:43]
Steven KINGS (b.1962)
Carol (2004) 8 [3:59]
O Tree (2009) 9 [4:15]
John Francis WADE (1711/12-1786) arr. WILLCOCKS
O come, all ye faithful 10 [6:13]
TRADITIONAL NORMANDY arr. Reginald JACQUES (verse 3 Stephen SHELLARD)
Away in a manger 11 [3:33]
Carl RUTTI (b.1949)
I wonder as I wander (1994) 12 [2:16]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) (verse 3 descant SHELLARD)
Hark! The herald angels sing 13 [2:55]
1-2,4-13 Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir/Stephen Shellard, 1,3,4,6,10,12,13George Castle (organ), Ben Cooper (1baritone, 8-9piano), 1Joanne Jefferis (cello) 2Catherine White (harp) rec. Worcester Cathedral 17-18 June, 9 July 2009. DDD. Booklet includes sung texts.
REGENT REGCD330 [75:40]
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 Nicholas. 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 dwell’.
‘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: worship 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.
The 14th century Resonemus Laudibus is much 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 isn’t the most well known one but its minor key well conveys cold stillness yet also intimacy.
Worcester is agreeable but Trinity is outstanding.