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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Festival of Britten
Fancie (1961) [1:04]
Festival Te Deum, Op. 32 (1945)* [6:28]
A Hymn of St Columba (1962)* [1:48]
Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a (1955)* [6:15]
Three Two-part Songs (1932) [6:13]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930)** [3:27]
Jubilate Deo in C (1934)* [2:40]
Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 (1942)*** [9:49]
Te Deum in C (1934)** [8:16]
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (1943)**** [10:30]
Deus in adjutorium meum (1945)*** [5:10]
Antiphon (1955)** [6:09]
Jubilate Deo in E flat (1934)** [2:39]
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942)***** [23:24]
Rejoice in the Lamb, Festival Cantata, Op. 30 (1943)****** [18:23]
National Youth Choirs of Great Britain/Ben Parry (overall director)
Boys’ Choir/Greg Hallam; *Training Choir South/Greg Beardsell; **Training Choir North/Dominic Peckham and Rachel Staunton; ****Cambiata Voices/Niall Crowley; ***Chamber Choir/Ben Parry; *****Girls’ Choirs/Esther Jones; ******National Youth Choir/Robert Isaacs/James Sherlock (organ, piano); Vicky Lester (harp)
ec. 11 April 2013, 23 and 28 August 2013, Tonbridge School Chapel; 18 August 2013, Oundle School Chapel; 30 August 2013, Sage, Gateshead. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34133 [70:36 + 41:49]

Delphian has issued several CDs already by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and those which have come my way have impressed me. However, the NYCGB is one of what one might call a pyramid of no fewer than eight ensembles that comprise the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. This organisation, established thirty years ago, caters for over 750 young singers aged between 9 and 24. The choirs not only reflect the different age groups but also levels of experience so that the youngest singers are includes in the Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs while the Chamber Choir, which numbers just thirty singers, is made up of young professionals and singers in the process of training for a professional career.
 
When I was typing the heading to this review a Freudian slip, unnoticed at first, led me to christen the choirs the National Youth Choirs of Great Britten. Perhaps that’s not inappropriate for Benjamin Britten wrote a great deal of music either for or involving young singers and it’s highly apt that the various components of the NYCGB should all have contributed to this centenary tribute. The recordings were made, I presume, during the choirs’ annual residential courses in summer 2013.
 
Each element of the NYCGB can be heard in this set. The Boys’ Choir (trebles in school years 5 to 10 - from about 10 years of age upwards) gives us a lively rendition of the boisterous little Shakespeare setting, Fancie, but I wish that as well they’d been given something more interesting that the Three Two-part Songs, settings of Walter de la Mare, well though they sing them. Why not the Missa Brevis in D?
 
The Cambiata Voices is a particularly interesting element of the National Youth Choirs. This caters for boys in school years 6-10 whose voices are migrating to tenor or bass. How good it is that these young singers are not just left to fend for themselves but, instead, are given sympathetic vocal guidance, the fruits of which we hear in The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. 

There are two Training Choirs. These are for mixed voices in school years 9-13: from about the age of 14 upwards. Training Choir South give us, among other things, the Festival Te Deum. The performance is, perhaps, a little too slow and thoughtful at the start but breaks strongly into life at ‘Thou art the King of Glory’. We shall hear a number of excellent soloists in this collection, drawn from the choirs, but Kirsty O’Neill, who features here, is one of the very best. Her solo at ‘O Lord, bless thy people’ is exceptionally good, exhibiting a lovely rounded tone, excellent clarity and a fine feeling for expression. Watch for her name: she could have quite a future.
 
Not to be outdone, Training Choir North also give a very good account of themselves, especially in the Te Deum in C where they, too, benefit from a very good solo soprano. They also perform a couple of less well-known pieces. The Jubilate in E flat was, apparently, withdrawn by Britten and while it’s interesting to hear it the later C major setting is a finer piece. Antiphon is a setting of George Herbert, not to be confused with the Vaughan Williams piece of the same name - from the Five Mystical Songs - which sets different lines by Herbert. It’s a good piece and here the Training Choir puts no fewer than three very good soprano soloists into the spotlight.
 
The Girls’ Choirs, Senior and Junior, which are made up of singers in school years 6-10, combine for A Ceremony of Carols. This is a very different performance from many that you’ll hear on disc because the choir is so substantial. For some of the movements either just the Senior or Junior Choir sings but when they combine there must be some 150 voices involved. The singing is consistently excellent but because the ensemble is so large a sense of intimacy is missing, inevitably. There doesn’t seem to be much attempt at a processional effect at the start - the music just starts loudly and close-up - though, oddly, there is a recessional at the end and it’s quite well managed. Despite the size of the combined choir ‘Wolcum Yole!’ evidences good, light sound and tight ensemble work. The Junior Choir show excellent attention to dynamics in ‘That yongë child’. I’m not quite so convinced by ‘This little Babe’ where the size of the choir rather tends to cloud Britten’s teeming canons but in the penultimate movement the words of ‘Adam lay ibounden’ are incisively delivered. Despite reservations over the size of the choir this is, on its own terms, a very good performance, fully up to the high standards elsewhere in this collection.
 
At the pinnacle of the NYCGB organisation stand two choirs. The National Youth Choir itself includes mixed voices from school year 11 (from about the age of 16) up to age 22. This choir contributes a very good performance of Rejoice in the Lamb, Britten’s highly original setting of Christopher Smart’s somewhat eccentric words. I particularly admired the atmospheric start of the piece and, indeed, throughout the performance Robert Isaacs draws fine, responsive singing from his choir. There’s a very good solo quartet, amongst whom soprano Bethany Partridge is outstanding.
 
She’s a member of the Chamber Choir, as is Rebekah Jones, the alto soloist in Rejoice in the Lamb. This is an elite group of some thirty singers, aged up to 24, who are either training for or have already embarked upon a professional career. This group performs Deus in adjutorium meum, an a cappella setting in Latin of Psalm 70. It’s described in the notes as “gritty yet radiant”. I’m not sure I’ve heard it before and its inclusion here, in an excellent performance, is very welcome. There are no issues of unfamiliarity with Hymn to St Cecilia. This is excellent and the light airiness of Britten’s textures is very well realised.
 
Delphian’s recordings, made at three separate venues, are all very good, as we’ve come to expect from this label. The comprehensive documentation includes notes by the Britten biographer, Paul Kildea.
 
This is a very fine collection which will give much pleasure. The singing is skilful throughout. Above all, the listener consistently feels the commitment and enthusiasm of these young musicians. Obviously, these recordings remind us what a skilled composer for choirs Britten was. Equally important, however, is the focus that this pair of CDs puts on the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. It was a particularly happy idea to include contributions from all the constituent elements, showing the developmental progression that’s possible for young singers within this remarkable organisation. We read so many alarming reports these days about the apparent decline in musical education in British schools, especially in the state sector, it’s very reassuring to remember that there are organisations such as this - and the youth orchestras - that keep the flag flying so well. I think Benjamin Britten would have loved this album and that he’d rejoice to know that these young people are being so effectively trained, not just in his music but in the joys of singing.
 
John Quinn


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