As is well known, Britten did not have any great degree of affection for the cultivated sound of ‘English Cathedral’ boys’ choirs. He preferred the rougher edge of groups such as the Westminster Cathedral boys to those of King’s College Chapel. For his own recording of the Ceremony of Carols
(in mono sound) he employed the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir, who had a very decided edge indeed. He nevertheless recognised the validity of what one might call the ‘Willcocks school’ and even countenanced an arrangement of the score by Julius Harrison for mixed SATB choir - it doesn’t appear ever to have been recorded - in order to promote performances. The present recording employs a choir of young female singers, and it has to be said that there is a considerable degree of gain in such settings as In freezing winter night
(tr. 9) where the more rounded tone of the choir brings an almost impressionist feel to the music. The solos that are scattered through the work are distributed between various singers from the choir, but in this movement Catrin Pryce-Jones is particularly impressive with a security to her top notes that very few boy trebles could match. Earlier, Julia Daramy-Williams allows herself to be convinced not to pronounce the final detached syllable in “nightingalë” (tr. 4) which is an unwarranted amendment of Britten’s word setting … he knew what he was doing. Otherwise all is fine, but I do have some reservations about the rather distant placement of the choir and harp in this resonant acoustic. It tends to smooth out some of the edges in the music and makes some of the delicate harp decorations hard to discern clearly. Sir David Willcocks, in his recording with Osian Ellis and the King’s College Choir, is similarly soft-toned, but the sound as recorded is more immediate even in the notorious echo of King’s College Chapel.
The remainder of the works on this disc contain some very welcome novelties. Among these the three additional pieces by Britten are none of them familiar items. Sweet was the song
begins rather too soon after the fading recessional at the end of the Ceremony of Carols
, but is beautifully delivered here, as is the even earlier Wealden Trio
with its bitter words by Ford Madox Ford about poverty at Christmas. The Oxen
is a much later work, written in 1967 as a commission for the East Coker Women’s Institute. It must be admitted that Britten’s response to Thomas Hardy’s words here is not a patch on his earlier Hardy song-cycle Winter Words
, or indeed on Vaughan Williams’s delicate setting of the same poem some ten years earlier in his cantata Hodie.
The piano accompaniment sounds in places rather like an imitation of the opening of The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
, and the melodic lines lack distinction. This sounds very much Britten running on auto-pilot. Nothing Britten wrote is totally without interest but reasons for the neglect of this late setting are not hard to discern.
Unfortunately the same has to be said about Tarik O’Regan’s setting of Bring rest, sweet dreaming child.
The poem by Mark Pryce is pretty conventional in its religious pieties, but the treatment of the words by O’Regan, veering about melodically in a rather erratic fashion, lacks the sense of purpose that one finds elsewhere in this composer’s works. Uniquely on this disc, one gets the sense at the end that the choir are having momentary difficulty in maintaining pitch. After that Lionel Salter’s arrangement of the Coventry Carol
brings us the traditional haunting tune, although it must be admitted that Salter’s additional counterpoints don’t add very much to it and indeed almost obscure it in the third verse.
The Holst setting of Jesu, thou the Virgin-born
, on the other hand, is an absolute gem. It is the third in a set of old English carols written in 1907, and sounds very much like an early sketch for the later and much better-known Lullay, my liking.
It has been previously recorded - including a version conducted by Imogen Holst - but I must admit it was unknown to me. It is a pity that we could not have had all four of these carol settings - there is a complete recording of the set by Edward Higginbottom, oddly enough also coupled with the Britten Ceremony of Carols
- which like so much early Holst sheds interesting light on his later development. It is given beautifully here with an impassioned delivery of the solo lines by Rebecca Howard and Lynn Bellamy and wonderfully poised choral responses.
Sir Philip Ledger’s setting of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
brings another nicely rounded melody. It is a pity that Ledger finds it necessary to extend the setting by repetition of the text with increasingly elaborate counterpoints featuring canonic imitation. It might have been even better simply to allow the short poem and its melody to stand on its own merits. This track and the Salter arrangement are here receiving their recording premières.
Elgar’s The snow
is better known in its version for female chorus and orchestra. It must be admitted that it doesn’t really ‘come off’ in the composer’s chamber arrangement. The rhetorical piano triplets in particular, so effective in orchestral guise, sound merely conventional here. The elaborate and sometimes strenuous passages for two solo violins serve only to remind the listener of what is missing. As in the Britten, the rather backward placement of the accompanying instruments does not help to give definition to the sound. The words of the poem, by Alice Elgar, are not particularly geared to the Christmas season.
Nonetheless, as a recital this disc is thoroughly enjoyable. It comes to a conclusion with three rousing arrangements of traditional tunes by John Rutter. These display all the composer’s felicity with appropriate and ear-tickling counterpoints. The choral singing here is simply magnificent, assured and spot-on rhythmically. It is no surprise that Les Sirènes
won the BBC competition for Choir of the Year in 2012. This disc will please their many fans, and other listeners too will be delighted by a Christmas record that ventures so far, and so interestingly, off the beaten track.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review: Gwyn
Britten discography & review index