MusicWeb International One of the most grown-up review sites around 2023
Approaching 60,000 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here Acte Prealable Polish CDs

Presto Music CD retailer
Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             

Some items
to consider

new MWI
Current reviews

old MWI
pre-2023 reviews

paid for

Acte Prealable Polish recordings

Forgotten Recordings
Forgotten Recordings
All Forgotten Records Reviews

Troubadisc Weinberg- TROCD01450

All Troubadisc reviews

FOGHORN Classics

Brahms String Quartets

All Foghorn Reviews

All HDTT reviews

Songs to Harp from
the Old and New World

all Nimbus reviews

all tudor reviews

Follow us on Twitter

Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Contributing Editor
Ralph Moore
   David Barker
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger


Advertising on

Donate and keep us afloat


New Releases

Naxos Classical
All Naxos reviews

Chandos recordings
All Chandos reviews

Hyperion recordings
All Hyperion reviews

Foghorn recordings
All Foghorn reviews

Troubadisc recordings
All Troubadisc reviews

all Bridge reviews

all cpo reviews

Divine Art recordings
Click to see New Releases
Get 10% off using code musicweb10
All Divine Art reviews

All Eloquence reviews

Lyrita recordings
All Lyrita Reviews


Wyastone New Releases
Obtain 10% discount

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing



CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols for upper voices and harp, Op. 28 (1942)* [24:13]
St. Nicolas Cantata, Op. 42 (1948) [49:15]
Allan Clayton (tenor); Luke McWatters (treble); *Sally Pryce (harp)
*The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Holst Singers; Boys of the Temple Church Choir
Catherine Edwards and Jonathan Higgins (piano duet)
City of London Sinfonia/Stephen Layton
rec. *10-13 September 2007, Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge; 15-16 January, 2012, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London. DDD
English texts included
HYPERION CDA67946 [75:30]

Experience Classicsonline

A Ceremony of Carols is most frequently heard sung by boy trebles – there is also an SATB arrangement by Julius Harrison, which, for all Harrison’s skill doesn’t really work in my opinion. However, in his excellent booklet note Mervyn Cooke points out that the piece, which Britten largely composed while on his sea voyage back from the USA to Britain in 1942, was conceived for female voices. Britten composed seven of the settings while on the Atlantic; later, between 1942 and 1943 he added the processional and recessional movements, the Interlude for solo harp and ‘That yongë child’. There have been a number of recordings by female choirs but they are much rarer than performances by boys.
Listening to this superb new version by the ladies of the Trinity College choir it must be acknowledged that boys can impart different qualities to the music. In particular the more cultured sound of these young ladies doesn’t have the edge that boys can bring in particular to carols such as ‘This little babe’ and ‘Deo gracias’. However, the Trinity choir is not short of attack and precision in these numbers and any lack of ‘edge’ is a small price to pay; the wonderful singing of the Trinity ladies compensates strongly. Their singing is committed, splendidly controlled, pure toned, utterly secure in pitching – even the best boy trebles can sometimes pitch ‘in the crack’ – and expressive. Furthermore, their diction is impeccably clear. There are two excellent soprano soloists, Zoë Brown and Katherine Watson – Miss Brown is particularly good in ‘That yongë child’. The harpist, Sally Pryce, also performs with distinction. In short, this is one of the best performances of A Ceremony of Carols that I’ve heard.
The full Trinity choir and the Holst Singers join forces for St. Nicolas. There are a number of versions in the catalogue but it so happens that the one which I’ve had in my collection for many years – along with Britten’s own classic account with Peter Pears – is also a Hyperion disc, now on their Helios label. This was made by Matthew Best and his Corydon Singers with the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role. The recording, which was set down in 1988, was made in the same venue as this newcomer, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak. In his review of that disc William Hedley very fairly drew attention to the work’s unevenness. Acknowledging that, I’ve always had a soft spot for the work. I agree with Mervyn Cooke that it’s an excellent example of Britten’s ability to involve amateurs and professionals – and even the audience. Cooke also quotes a review of the première in which reference was made to “the composer’s genius for securing the most telling effects by the simplest of means”. I think that’s spot on. The moment when the three pickled boys make their entrance, singing ‘Alleluia’, may strike many as “cheesy” but it’s jolly effective, as I was reminded only recently during a fine live performance in Coventry Cathedral (review). And then there’s that moment, after the death of Nicolas when, oh-so-quietly, the organ intones the closing hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, itself an adroit choice. It’s such a simple musical gesture – just six bars of subdued chords – yet it changes the mood completely and in a most imaginative way. Even though most of Britten’s operas lay in the future by 1948 he was clearly someone who already possessed a fine feeling for the theatrical. He would go on to write many more sophisticated works but St. Nicolas connects with its listeners strongly and should not be underrated.
This new performance makes the best possible case for it. Comparing it with the earlier Best performance the newcomer sounds more dramatic – I think the recording is a bit closer and is perhaps cut at a higher level, There are some instances where Matthew Best seems a wee bit more expansive than Stephen Layton, but never to the music’s disadvantage, I feel. I think that Best scores in one way: he uses extra singers – members of four choirs – to join in the two congregational hymns. That’s particularly apparent in ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and it was worth the extra trouble in order to accommodate Britten’s wish for congregational involvement. In one other respect I prefer Best to Layton. In the last hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, Layton speeds up a bit after verse one though that’s not marked in the vocal score. Best maintains his broad speed and, as a result, catches more the spirit of wonder and majesty. It’s only a small point but, of course, this is our last impression of the performance.
In other respects honours are about even. I agree with William Hedley that Anthony Rolfe Johnson sometimes sounds under pressure though I still like his performance a lot. Allan Clayton, a younger singer, of course, has no such issues. Rolfe Johnson’s voice is, by nature, a bit sweeter and his experience and sensitivity are greatly to be welcomed in such passages as ‘Nicolas devotes himself to God’, where his emotional range is impressive, and in the prayer that Nicolas sings after the stilling of the storm. But Clayton is by no means outshone when it comes to sensitivity. His accounts of both of the aforementioned passages are splendid and, in fact, I think he’s even more affecting in the way he delivers the quiet ending to ‘Nicolas devotes himself to God’. On the other side of the coin, though Rolfe Johnson is not lacking in vocal strength the virile, ardent tone that Clayton can produce at such passages as ‘I, Nicolas’ in the fifth movement is compelling. I’m glad to have both fine interpretations in my collection but, pressed to make a choice, I would now opt for Clayton, whose performance is very impressive.
The choral contributions to both performances are excellent. For Layton the combined forces of his two choirs deliver polished singing. In the fourth movement, depicting Nicolas’ storm-interrupted journey to Palestine, the men sing with vigour without ever forcing the tone and throughout the adult choirs give an exemplary account of Britten’s music. The boy trebles sing really well - Luke McWatters is confident and accurate in ‘The Birth of Nicolas – and the Gallery Choir of sopranos, which I think is comprised of some of the Trinity College singers, are beautifully placed in the sound picture and sing with delightful purity of tone. The instrumental playing is precise and excellently articulated.
I’m not about to discard my copy of the Matthew Best recording but, overall, I think this new Layton performance has a slight edge. The sound on the older recording is very good but the newcomer sounds more immediate and so is even more impressive. Much though I like Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role, Allan Clayton is more vivid and dramatic and he yields nothing to Rolfe Johnson when it comes to the more sensitive passages. What tilts the balance firmly in favour of the new issue is the very fine performance of A Ceremony of Carols – Best offers Hymn to St Cecilia in a good performance but that’s not as generous a coupling. Hyperion always earns high marks for documentation and this new disc is no exception since the booklet essay by Mervyn Cooke is very good indeed and most informative.
No doubt there will be a glut of Britten recordings during his centenary year in 2013. Hyperion have got in early and set the bar high.
John Quinn






Making a Donation to MusicWeb

Writing CD reviews for MWI

About MWI
Who we are, where we have come from and how we do it.

Site Map

How to find a review

How to find articles on MusicWeb
Listed in date order

Review Indexes
   By Label
      Select a label and all reviews are listed in Catalogue order
   By Masterwork
            Links from composer names (eg Sibelius) are to resource pages with links to the review indexes for the individual works as well as other resources.

Themed Review pages

Jazz reviews


      Composer surveys
      Unique to MusicWeb -
a comprehensive listing of all LP and CD recordings of given works
Prepared by Michael Herman

The Collector’s Guide to Gramophone Company Record Labels 1898 - 1925
Howard Friedman

Book Reviews

Complete Books
We have a number of out of print complete books on-line

With Composers, Conductors, Singers, Instumentalists and others
Includes those on the Seen and Heard site


Nostalgia CD reviews

Records Of The Year
Each reviewer is given the opportunity to select the best of the releases

Monthly Best Buys
Recordings of the Month and Bargains of the Month

Arthur Butterworth Writes

An occasional column

Phil Scowcroft's Garlands
British Light Music articles

Classical blogs
A listing of Classical Music Blogs external to MusicWeb International

Reviewers Logs
What they have been listening to for pleasure



Bulletin Board

Give your opinions or seek answers

Past and present

Helpers invited!

How Did I Miss That?

Currently suspended but there are a lot there with sound clips

Composer Resources

British Composers

British Light Music Composers

Other composers

Film Music (Archive)
Film Music on the Web (Closed in December 2006)

Programme Notes
For concert organizers

External sites
British Music Society
The BBC Proms
Orchestra Sites
Recording Companies & Retailers
Online Music
Agents & Marketing
Other links
Web News sites etc

A pot-pourri of articles

MW Listening Room
MW Office

Advice to Windows Vista users  
Site History  
What they say about us
What we say about us!
Where to get help on the Internet
CD orders By Special Request
Graphics archive
Currency Converter
Web Ring
Translation Service

Rules for potential reviewers :-)
Do Not Go Here!
April Fools

Error processing SSI file