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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Choral Dances from Gloriana (1953) [9:12]
Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27 (1942) [10:41]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930) [3:25]
Five Flower Songs, Op. 47 (1950) [11:15]
A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam) (1939) [18:19]
RIAS Kammerchor/Justin Doyle
rec. 2017, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, Germany
Texts in English included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902285 [53:42]

This collection of Britten choral works performed by a German choir under a British director is most welcome. It has been a number of years since such a programme has appeared. The RIAS Kammerchor is sizable with 10 sopranos, 8 altos, 8 tenors, and 8 basses. The background of Justin Doyle, their current director, is of the British choral tradition. Born in Lancaster, he began his musical education as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral then was a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. He was awarded the first Conductor Fellowship with the BBC Singers, with whom he still works. The RIAS Kammerchor has had such distinguished conductors in the past as Marcus Creed and Daniel Reuss and seem to be in excellent hands now with Doyle, based on the performances on this disc.

I am familiar with several British groups who have performed this music, but this is my first exposure to a German choir in this repertoire. I must say they pass with flying colours, as their diction is excellent with the words clearly understood overall. The choir has a very fine balance of voices with an especially solid bass foundation. There are occasional solos and the soloists are all members of the choir, as is the custom for this material.

As Philip Rupprecht’s notes in the CD booklet indicate, the Choral Dances were originally composed for the “Masque” scene in Gloriana, but were published separately for concert performance. Like the orchestral suite from the opera, these dances whet one’s appetite for a complete performance of the opera itself—one of Britten’s less successful works if one goes by the frequency of productions of the opera. The six dances or songs offer a nice contrast between the slower more lyrical pieces, such as “Time and Concord,” and the jauntier “Rustics and Fishermen” and “Country Girls.” The RIAS Kammerchor captures the mood and spirit of these songs with style.

While the brief A Hymn to the Virgin for four-part double chorus is one of Britten’s earliest works, written when the composer was sixteen years-old, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, is a mature masterpiece, one of his best known and most beloved a cappella works. There are many recordings of the latter, of which I have two in my collection: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Willcocks (EMI) and the Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner (DG). I have greatly admired both of these and can now add the RIAS Kammerchor to these esteemed predecessors. The RIAS choir sounds fuller and warmer than the others, but their diction is very good if not quite as clear as the Choir of King’s College. This anthem is in three parts, but the booklet texts contain only the first two—an unintended omission I’m sure.

Britten composed the Five Flower Songs as a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary gift for Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, friends of his, patrons of the arts, and botanists. They contain much variety with each song depicting a precise image. The titles of the songs are “To Daffodils,” “The Succession of Four Sweet Months,” “Marsh Flowers,” “The Evening Primrose,” and “The Ballad of Green Broom.” There is little to choose between this account and one by the Monteverdi Choir on the same disc as their Hymn to St. Cecilia. In the first song Gardiner is a bit lighter and faster, but not as smooth as Doyle. In the “Marsh Flowers” Doyle is rather more deliberate and not quite as dramatic as Gardiner, though the diminuendo concluding the song by the RIAS choir is superb. Doyle’s choir performs the close harmony to perfection and the lower voices are really special in “The Evening Primrose.” His tempo is slightly quicker in this song than Gardiner’s, but both capture the lyricism of the piece very well. In contrast, Gardiner is exciting and even wild in the lively last song, “The Ballad of Green Broom,” whereas Doyle is much slower and smoother. Maybe because of that the RIAS choir’s diction is somewhat clearer. Both capture the humour there and the imitation of strummed guitar chords in the first two stanzas of that piece.

The disc concludes with seven settings by Gerard Manley Hopkins under the title of A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam) that Britten composed in Woodstock, New York and on Long Island during his two-year residence in the United States. This was my first exposure to these exquisite songs. According to Rupprecht, Britten was attracted to Hopkins’s “rhythmic vitality” as much as to his “religious complexity.” Two of the songs are prayers, which are hymn-like, straightforward and homophonic, but with some dissonance. The final number, “Heaven-Haven,” is also homophonic and subdued with interesting harmony and ends on a very low bass note that the choir nails impressively. Other songs are more rhythmic and lively, such as the second one, “Rosa Mystica,” and the penultimate, “The Soldier.” Both of these have catchy themes. More powerful are “God’s Grandeur,” with its clear rhythm and counterpoint and outstanding use of dynamics and choral shading, and the ecstatic “O Deus, ego amo te” that is particularly memorable for its varied dynamics. The RIAS Kammerchor superbly characterizes these settings and well demonstrates their vocal abilities, as they do throughout the programme.

The RIAS Kammerchor under Justin Doyle need not take a backseat to any of their British counterparts. If the particular programme appeals, then you should not hesitate to add this to your collection. As usual, Harmonia Mundi’s production values are state of the art, with the sole exception of the omitted text noted above.

Leslie Wright

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