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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Saint Nicolas Op.42 [49:40]
Hymn to St Cecilia Op.27 [10:25]
Rejoice in the Lamb Op. 30 [16:25]
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Sawston Village College Choir; CUMS Chorus
Britten Sinfonia/Stephen Cleobury (organ)
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, 23-24 June 2012, 14-15 January, 20 May 2013 texts included
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0003 [CD + 76:32]

St Nicolas was written for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex, Peter Pears’ old school, on 24 July 1948. The main choir originally comprised the choirs of three boys’ schools. In addition there is a gallery choir, originally from a girls’ school. The score explains that it is “suitable for performance by any numerically big chorus, even if the singers are not very experienced”.
 
I had some concern before listening to this disc that the choir might be too small and too sophisticated for the work, but to my surprise that is not the case. This may be partly the result of being joined by the Sawston Village College Choir for four sections and also by the CUMS chorus for the final section in which the congregation are asked to join in singing the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”.
 
Overall the performance avoids the trap of over-sophistication which can so easily kill the impact of the work. As in Noye’s Fludde Britten gains a positive advantage in musical and dramatic terms from the technical limitations of the performers. He instructs that the part of the boy Nicolas should be sung by the youngest boy in the choir, maximising the contrast with the young man Nicolas sung by the tenor soloist. The second percussion part is marked ad libitum and may be played by “as many gifted and/or enthusiastic amateurs as there are instruments”. The resulting sense of a community with varying talents engaged in the performance is an important characteristic of the work.
 
Fortunately, what we hear manages to steer a careful course between excessive gloss and technical inadequacy. In that it mirrors the first recording work, conducted by the composer whilst being immeasurably superior to it in terms of recording quality. The only respect in which it might be thought to fall short of the earlier version is in Andrew Kennedy as the tenor soloist. Not that he is in any way technically inadequate but simply because of the superiority of Peter Pears in what was probably his best period vocally. His sense of engagement with the part would be hard to match let alone exceed. It is worth noting that at performances at Lancing College his name would be followed by the letters “O.L.” to indicate his special status as an old boy of the school.
 
Although many critics have been at best lukewarm it does seem to have been a work in which Pears had a real belief. If, however, one tries to forget his performance that of Andrew Kennedy is far from negligible or unconvincing, and I suspect that I will find myself admiring it much more when I next listen to it. Certainly this is the most satisfying recording since the first version over half a century ago.
 
It comes with two substantial extras. The Hymn to St Cecilia is probably more often heard with mixed voices but as sung here there is no sense of weakness or lack of character in the upper voices. Rejoice in the Lamb, with its strange text from the poetry of Christopher Smart, is always a pleasure to hear, and its many changes of character are also well caught here.
 
As well as a normal CD the set also includes the same material on a separate SACD dual layer disc.
 
The booklet has an interesting essay by Mervyn Cooke on the links between Britten and King’s College, and the full texts of all three works. Unless your sight is especially keen, however, you may find a magnifying glass to be essential.  

St Nicolas
seems to have fallen in popularity in recent years, with Noye’s Fludde more often the work of choice for schools or youth groups wanting to perform Britten. A performance like this, however, makes a strong case for it as being one of Britten’s most masterly as well as most loveable works.
 
John Sheppard  

Britten review index and discography