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On Christmas Night
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

A Ceremony of Carols, Op.28 [25.29]
Jonathan ROBERTS (b.1983)
Hope finds a way [3.50]
Mistletoe [4.03]
Morten LAURIDSEN (b.1943)
O magnum mysterium [6.41]
Traditional arr. Sir David WILLCOCKS
Away in a manger [3.05]
Sussex Carol [1.46]
God rest you merry gentlemen [3.27]
Traditional arr. Philip LEDGER
O come all ye faithful [5.26]
Traditional arr. Robert PEARSALL
In dulci jubilo [3.14]
Traditional arr. James O’DONNELL
Once in royal David’s city [4.30]
Stille nacht [3.36]
Traditional arr. Charles WOOD
Ding dong merrily on high [1.50]
Ralph BLANE/Hugh MARTIN arr. Peter GRITTON
Meet me in St Louis – Have yourself a merry little Christmas [2.55]
Charles Matthews (organ), Sally Price (harp)
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
rec. St Mark’s Church, Leamington Spa, 14 November 2011
SIGNUM SICGD386 [69.53]

I do not know whether cold statistics would back me up, but I strongly suspect that the Ceremony of Carols is the most frequently performed of all Britten’s compositions. Nearly every Christmas concert given by a school with any pretensions to musical education seems to include at least one of the settings from the cycle; the harp interlude makes frequent appearances in recitals all over the world. Not that all these performances exactly meet Britten’s specifications for a choir consisting entirely of female or unbroken voices with harp accompaniment. Many elect to employ the arrangement for mixed voices made with Britten’s approval by Julius Harrison. Others are given with piano accompaniment — which I think actually works better in This little babe. It is curious that none of the many recordings available on disc appear to make use of these alternatives, which would have novelty value at least. What we have here is Britten’s original scoring, given — as at the time of the first performance — by young female voices with one solitary male in the alto section.

It is at least seventy years too late, I suppose, to note that the Ceremony is not specifically a Christmas work, since it also makes use of one non-seasonal carol in the shape of William Cornish’s Plesure it is. That said, Britten himself reinforced the nativity connection by his adoption of the plainchant processional and recessional Hodie Christus natus est to frame the work and by his use of this plainchant as the basis for the harp interlude. This interlude famously makes prominent use of harp harmonics throughout in a bell-like refrain. Although these effects had featured in compositions going back to Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette and before, they here reach what surely must be their apotheosis. Nor is this the only point in the work where Britten’s use of harp is striking: the torrent of glissandi at the close of Adam lay ybounden end the sequence of carols with a real flourish which sounds simply feeble on the piano. This carol is one of the only two in the cycle which survive the competition in versions by other composers, in this case Boris Ord. Balulalow in its setting by Peter Warlock too has retained a place in the repertory. Otherwise Britten’s treatments of his mediaeval and Renaissance texts has comprehensively trounced all other settings of his chosen texts.

Concerto Armonico have gained an enviable and deserved reputation for their work in the field of musical education. Although this disc was recorded in one session it is rather startling to note that the singers employed in the Ceremony are a completely different - and much younger - group from those who give us the rest of the programme, a collection of mainly traditional carols with four more modern novelties, mainly sung with organ or unaccompanied. It is almost as if we have two completely independent recitals.

Of the four novelties, two here receive their first recordings, both being written specifically for this choir by Jonathan Roberts. Mistletoe, a setting of Walter de la Mare, is a gentle meditation rather in the style of the commercially successful choir Libera, and very beautiful. Hope finds a way, a setting of a poem by the composer’s father, is more conventional in tone but unfortunately the main theme of the refrain bears a very distinct and distracting similarity to the mediaeval carol Quem pastores laudevere. The setting of O magnum mysterium by Morten Lauridsen has become quite a modern classic since it was written twenty years ago; but the arrangement by Peter Griffiths of Have yourself a merry little Christmas, with its barber-shop type harmonies, sounds distinctly out of place in the company of the other settings. The break before the rather close entry of the choir in the Britten is far too short to allow the ear to adjust.

In the Britten, the balance between choir and harp is perfectly judged so that the filigree accompaniments come through loud and clear. The young soloists too acquit themselves well, although for some reason Andrea Pringle in Balulalow seems to be set considerably further back from the microphone than Belinda Morley in the preceding That yongë child. The Jonathan Roberts Hope finds a way, we are told in the booklet notes, was also written for choir and harp but is here given with organ. In the other carols, mainly in traditional arrangements, the presence of the rumbling organ pedals is rather too much of a good thing in the fuller passages. The chorus sounds rather larger than the mere ten singers listed in the booklet but this may just be the result of the resonant acoustic of the church involved. They sing well and securely, but one might have wished for a bit more sheer abandon in the delivery of lines like “tidings of comfort and joy”. Oddly enough in the repeats of “Gloria in excelsis” in Ding dong merrily on high the chorus sing the second phrase more quietly than the first, the opposite of the usual procedure but one which works well. Elsewhere the changes in scoring and registrations between verses are well-judged and effective.

The booklet comes with full texts and translations where appropriate, as well as five pages of informative notes on the music by Brendan Carroll. If you want this particular programme it is hard to imagine it being better performed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

If you want this particular programme it is hard to imagine it being better performed.

Britten review index & discography: A Ceremony of Carols