Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sacred Choral Works
Rejoice in the Lamb, op. 30 (1943) [15:24]
Jubilate Deo in C (1961) [2:44]
Te Deum in C (1934) [7:39]
A Hymn of St Columba (1962) [2:17]
Hymn to St Peter, op. 56a (1955) [5:22]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930, rev. 1934) [3:01]
Hymn to St Cecilia, op. 27 (1942, rev. 1966) [9:55]
Festival Te Deum, op. 32 (1944) [6:10]
A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28 (1942, rev. 1943) [20:25]
Norwich Cathedral Choir/Ashley Grote
David Dunnett, George Inscoe (organ), Elizabeth Green (harp)
rec. Norwich Cathedral, 2020.
Sung English texts and translations of the Latin texts (except in A Hymn to the Virgin) included.
PRIORY PRCD1233 [74:04]
Throughout his life Britten was inspired by eclectic texts. Indeed, in bringing together texts from a variety of sources he fashioned eclectic works, of which his best-known and most performed piece of sacred music, A Ceremony of Carols, that ends this CD is a good example. But its opening piece, Rejoice in the Lamb, is eclectic in its own right, a poem written by Christopher Smart in the madhouse, which is, writes Walter Hussey who commissioned Britten’s work, ‘chaotic in form but contains many flashes of genius’, the latter point equally applying to Britten’s setting. Britten made a selection from the long poem and, not to be chaotic in form, the work is in ten sections, helpfully separately tracked on this CD. Section 1 begins ppp, Measured and mysterious in, from Norwich Cathedral Choir, a rather cowed humility of unison C, but gets louder at the recognition of ‘ev-er-y Creature’, several to be featured later, because all, like man, have ‘the breath of Life’ and all therefore should ‘magnify’ God as Creator, the key action ‘magnify’ being the only melodic setting in this section.
Section 2, With vigour, is a roll-call of Old Testament characters bringing creatures for sacrifice, praise and thanks to God. Britten alternates the four-part homophony between with force, ff, the naming of the character and his creature, and pp short, with clusters of semiquavers, indicating the action performed and reason for it. Norwich CC deliver the very loud robustly, but the very soft is that but a touch blurred: it could be clearer in articulation. The section, however, works up to a fine climax with, along the way, the first mention of an instrument, Jakim’s Satyr, and heady, scurrying ascending semiquavers which are clear from Norwich CC as Britten obligingly puts a crescendo molto as they rise.
Section 3 in contrast is a Gently moving, p but rhythmic, Hallelujah chorus of a warm humility, where section 1 was a cold humility. Conductor Ashley Grote displays this well and traces the section’s speedy rise in dynamic to honour not just, as may be expected, ’the heart of God’ but the action of ‘the hand of the artist inimitable’ before returning to softness pictures the ‘sweetness magnifical’ of the echo of the heavenly harp. How well polyphonically Britten places and Grote clarifies these echoing words.
In section 4 the focus shifts to solo voices with obbligato organ, a technique, like the preceding Hallelujah chorus, Britten gleaned from Purcell’s verse anthems. Here a treble, Daniel Neville, Quietly moving, praises his cat, Jeoffry. The organ contorts and trills throughout, sometimes playfully, at others with ostentation illustrating variety of movement until, at a brief moment of inactivity (tr. 4, 1:21), illumines the sweet peace of his resting. Then, pp, parlante freely (1:31), the singer confides his love of the cat’s surpassing beauty and then responds in a crescendo to bless God for it.
In section 5 a countertenor, Ashley Harries, f, Fast and light, acts out a scene to show the bravery of a male mouse, challenging the cat to fight if he releases the female mouse. You enjoy the comic pretence of the octave glissando descent on ‘daring’ (tr. 5, 0:21), but also the closing change of focus in appreciating the mouse’s ‘hospitable disposition’ where on ‘hospitable’ (0:45) Harries vocally smiles engagingly but for me his ‘disposition’ (0:48) would benefit from being more markedly sweetly as marked.
In section 6, Slow, the delivery by tenor William Falconer remains sweetly but we’ve moved from fauna to flora, specifically flowers. The mood, however, has changed to one of meditation and I like the rapt, slightest of pauses after ‘angels’ (tr. 6, 0:32) at the apex of the longest phrase emphasising that key concept. The other significant moment, the crescendo on flowers being ‘the poetry of Christ (1:22) isn’t made as distinctive and I suggest the tenuto in the organ accompaniment might effectively be mirrored in the voice.
In section 7, set for four-part chorus (TrATB), the human poet now looks at himself, comparing his treatment in the madhouse with that of Christ. A slow and passionate section, graphically realized by a choir used to singing passion settings: taut homophony, menacing dynamic contrasts and a thunderous organ at the moment of bludgeoning (tr. 7, 0:45). Then the parts go into imitative counterpoint at ‘For I am in twelve hardships’ (1:15), vividly illustrating the wandering as if of a fragmented mind and yet also a climactic focus on Christ the saviour with trebles’ top G at ‘shall deliver me’ (1:37).
Section 8 is a slow bass recitative, gradually rising in its statements from pp to f and with some creepy crescendos and decrescendos for the refrain of every one, ‘he is God’. The latter feature is more evident in Dhilan Gnanadurai’s account than the gradual rise in dynamic, but he holds your attention through his solemn, emotive approach and vibrato. This recitative is a highly selective roll-call of letters of the alphabet, in the meaning of all of which Smart finds God, but while the letters H, K and L here are reverently treated, voice and melody become transported to top F at ‘For M is musick and therefore he is God’ (tr. 8, 1:06), which the chorus repeats and we’re straight into Section 9.
Very gay and fast this is and fully choral, this roll-call of instruments, which Smart conceives as having distinctive ‘rhimes’, a gift to Britten for rhythmic as well as melodic display and very suited to a rousing, rather rowdy finale. Yet the contrasts are more telling, for instance the stunning sudden diminuendo on the first forte ‘rhimes’ (tr.9, 0:07) and after the fff climax of sonority of the ‘Trumpet of God’, the revelation that God plays the harp, lovingly appreciated, the transformation to a very much slower vision (1:29) of a time without ‘malignity’, the devils at peace and ‘a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul’ and so a pp ending as moving as unexpected and you feel this is Smart’s journey. What might be expected, and is nevertheless effective, is the return of the Hallelujah chorus gently moving (as before) as a kind of epilogue: all isn’t chaos, but heavenly order.
I compare the 1957 recording made by Britten himself with the Purcell Singers (Eloquence 4840658), timing at 15:58 to Grote’s 15:24. This is the only stereo recording of the works on this CD under review that Britten made and his only other one is a mono recording from 1953 of A Ceremony of Carols with the Copenhagen Boys Choir. In section 1 Britten isn’t as distinctly soft as Grote. Britten’s opening has a more formal sense of ceremony. His climax on ‘magnify’ has a vivid feeling of awe. In section 2 Britten’s very soft material is more clearly articulated than Grote’s. In sections 3 and 10 Britten’s swing, the p rhythmic marking is notable, but Grote brings softer grained warmth of veneration. In section 4 treble Michael Hartnett’s emotive account with some vibrato stands out in clarity of articulation and phrasing rather than beauty of tone, yet his climax has an appropriate glow. In section 5 boy alto Jonathan Steele shows that Britten wanted a boy’s voice here and his lighter low notes sound better, his glissando is good, as is his emphasis on ‘hospitable’, while his ‘disposition’ is made distinctive but stylish, not really sweet, crafting.
In section 6 tenor Philip Todd has a lovely, natural, even and pure tone, again the shaping of phrases honoured. He takes a quick breath after ‘angels’, so that moment isn’t as poised as Falconer’s for Grote, but gets expressivo at ‘For the flower glorifies God’ because it starts on top G sharp, for which he needs more force than elsewhere. Todd’s melisma on ‘poetry’ is better shaped than Falconer’s. Britten’s section 7 is sorrowful from the outset and ‘For I am in twelve hardships’ is like labouring with determination up a mountain to face the realization and deliverance of a huge climax. In section 8 Britten’s steady build in dynamics is more effective than Grote’s, but the latter’s climax is more striking. In section 9 Grote has a more effective diminuendo on ‘rhimes’ and more appreciation in vocal nuance of God playing the harp than Britten, but the latter’s closing section, while not very much slower, is noticeably smoother, with the rallentando nearer the end at ‘remarkable stillness’ (tr. 9, 2:05 in Grote) a shade more weighted and becalming.
For the other tracks on this Norwich CD I compare New College Oxford Choir/Edward Higginbottom (Novum NCR 1386) recorded in 2011-12. Britten’s Jubilate Deo comes with the unpretentious marking Lively and Norwich CC’s singing, full of enthusiasm, matches this, making New College’s seem over polite. In Norwich they sound as though they’re having fun. The trebles and tenors start and the altos and basses sing the alternate phrases, both groups basically in octaves with the upper part having a slightly more elaborate line. And joy means high tessitura, with trebles and tenors on top G for ‘Be ye sure’ (tr. 11, 0:18). After the exhortatory verses of Psalm 100 comes the more meditative ‘Be thankful unto him’ (0:55) and Britten responds with a sudden humble pp from the voices for the first time in all four parts, like a whole congregation rather than the earlier two factions of competitive zealots. Norwich CC provide a much better dynamic contrast here than New College, maybe because the Cathedral is better suited to conveying a prayerful murmur in a vast space, which is just what’s wanted here. The organ, however, can be as cheeky quiet as loud and David Dunnett in Norwich is more characterful and his instrument better focussed than Steven Grahl’s in Oxford. If the organ makes the choir restive, Britten obliges them by having soft entries at ‘and his truth endureth’ (1:20), tiered from bass through the parts to treble, pp with a crescendo to f. Clever this, because the older voices start but are then bolstered by the younger, new generation and in the piece’s opening loud, spirited vein continue to the Gloria. But Grote’s attention to dynamics serves him less well for the basses’ pp entry at ‘and his truth endureth’, which needs to be clearer as to a lesser extent do the other tiered entries. Higginbottom is better at this because he only attempts p. But Grote has the advantage again when Britten returns to pp, mysterious and prayerful for ‘World without end, Amen’ before carillons of Amens are loudly exchanged by the original pairings of parts.
The 1934 Te Deum interestingly, and for much the same purpose as those tiered entries in the Jubilate, begins ‘We praise Thee’ pp from the basses through every part to the trebles and by the time it gets to ‘to be the Lord’ (0:26) and louder, the tiered division is between tenors and basses on the one hand and altos and trebles on the other and all four parts then sing together from ‘all the earth doth worship Thee’ (0:31). In this work the trebles hit top G from ‘the Father everlasting’ (0:41) and from then on there’s no stopping them, particularly in the three great cries of ‘Holy’ with an octave descent every time for the ‘ly’. From Grote this is raw drama, as is the immediately following unison identification ‘Lord God of Sabaoth’. Beginning at ‘The glorious company of the Apostles’ (1:33) the list of those offering praises is delivered by three parts with the other, first time the basses, dovetailing ‘praise Thee’ (1:39), exemplifying the action. This dovetailing could be clearer for the first two ‘praise’ entries, basses and then tenors, the problem being they are only p when the other parts are pp but the latter, being more numerous, sound louder. The problem doesn’t happen with the altos and trebles, as they’re more numerous and marked mf too, so they sound suitably muscular, as appropriately in turn for ‘The noble army of Martyrs’ and ‘The Holy Church throughout all the world.’
There follows a treble solo, pp dolce, ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ’, sung with pristine purity by Caio Boyero, pointing the simple yet powerful faith of the declaration. The chorus, as a congregation of witnesses, humbly dovetail with a ppp worshipping ‘O Christ!’ This pattern continues with the dynamics gradually increasing until the soloist is f at ‘Thou sittest at the right hand of God in the Glory of the Father’ (3:39) and the ATB chorus dovetail p ‘We believe that Thou shalt come to be our judge’ is in turn dovetailed by the soloist and trebles mf with all voices crescendo-ing to f animato on ‘Judge’, so the next prayer, ‘We therefore pray Thee, help thy servants’ is an eager appeal. But the recognition ‘whom Thou hast redeem-ed with Thy precious blood’ is marked by a quick diminuendo from f to p and the spotlighting on ‘redeem-ed’ emphasised by the soloist singing the word over the chorus pp cresc. e espress. and then echoing the chorus text as a solo. This procedure is repeated for the following two lines while in the second the soloist’s ‘glory everlasting’ is delivered over a continuing chorus ‘everlasting’ sustained beyond the soloist, thus neatly illustrating the text. This is all sensitively realized, although the dynamics after the diminuendo aren’t as soft as Britten asks, at least the text delivery is clear within the vast cathedral space.
Britten now repeats the manner and with a little revision the music of the piece’s opening for ‘O Lord, save Thy people’, rising again to the trebles’ top G at ‘and lift them up for ever’ and bettering this with a top A sforzando at ‘And we worship Thy Name’ (6:00). This action proves a confidence boost, for although the following ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin’ is soft, it’s also marked marcato and highly syncopated, so Norwich CC here has a partying feel, and why not, given Britten has seized on the climactic, top G again, end of this section, ‘O Lord, in Thee have I trusted’. The sting in the tail, then, is the text’s close, ‘let me never be confounded’. Britten marks this solo ad. lib. piu lento, p dolcissimo. Grote chooses to have all his trebles sing this, but for me a solo works better because the individual nature of and need for prayer is thereby pointed before the setting continues with the chorus repeats, first altos and basses, then trebles and tenors with altos and basses dovetailed. The picture then is a community in hope together and quietly coming to rest in the closing diminuendo.
I prefer Grote’s opening to Higginbottom’s: New College show excellent clarity, precision and balance but sound less involved until a warm, though not very soft, ‘The glorious company of the Apostles’ and that section admiring the gathering of the faithful. However, the comments I made above about the clarity of Norwich’s early dovetailed entries apply equally to New College. The latter’s soloist, Jonty Ward, has a fruitier voice than Norwich’s, with a touch of vibrato and pleasant fluency. New College’s diminuendo from f to p to spotlight ‘redeem-ed’ is less clear than Norwich’s and therefore so is the soloist’s overlaying the chorus. Higginbottom shortly does keep the section softer than Grote to serene effect, but the soloist’s contribution is thereby less apparent. From ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’ Higginbottom smooths over the syncopation, so this section has less character than Grote’s. Higginbottom also uses a body of trebles for ‘O Lord, in Thee have I trusted.’
A Hymn of St Columba is a gaunt piece composed to mark 1400 years since he journeyed from Ireland to Iona. Grote’s account gives us Britten’s marking, ‘Broadly, but with fire’, exactly. It starts in unison, then from ‘Diesque mirabilium’ (tr. 13, 0:36), the individual vocal lines, now more chromatic, echo one another just as D minor has turned to E major for the depiction of thunder. A quiet passage, in block chords, displays the calm when lust is absent and also the quest for worldly fame, but all the while a two-semiquaver plus quaver figure, heard in the organ from the beginning of the piece, even though still very quiet, is now more prominent in upper register. What is it? The ghost of mischief? David Dunnett plays it attractively, so you think of characterful details in earlier sacred works on this disc. The opening theme returns, proclaiming the day of judgement, but this time not in anger but a sense of justification given the failings just featured, then fades softly in humility before the ‘Lord on high’. A short, but effective, piece. Higginbottom is a little faster, timing at 1:58 to Grote’s 2:14. For me a little slower is better because Grote’s opening section is fierier. Even though the text is more clearly articulated by Higginbottom, it lacks Grote’s venom. Steven Grahl’s organ is less characterful than David Dunnett’s spiteful playfulness.
Hymn to St Peter gets its text and melody from the plainsong Propers for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, but reshaped by Britten. Its Introduction is like a banner, marked stately, the singing loud, firmly and sustained, a largely unison setting of the plainchant melody. You could say, appropriately for St Peter, rock solid delivery from Norwich CC. The second section (tr. 14, 1:35), Quickly and lightly, is a total contrast of soft tiered entries through the echoing, imitative parts from trebles to basses. In the second strain, crescendos in the parts individually come across well. For still further contrast, the repeated text is delivered in staccato quavers with two quaver rests between. The third section (2:25) starts in the manner of the first but soon turns to Alleluias. The fourth and final section (3:42) begins with a treble solo or semi-chorus, here the latter, singing the Latin ‘Tu es Petrus’ text under which the choir sings it in English, ppp, sensitively observed by Grote but you really have to concentrate to hear the translation. Fervent Alleluias from the semi-chorus are humbly echoed by the choir and die away, even as the semi-chorus had. It therefore seems to me Britten’s take on the text is that, however big a splash you have at the outset, it’s the continuing resonance, the embers, that’s important. In the Introduction New College Choir sound rather routine, less striking than Norwich CC, yet in the second section they are eager, though less contrasted in tempo and dynamic than Norwich and the latter’s staccato is also crisper. In the final section New College Choir’s English translation is clearer, but louder.
A Hymn to the Virgin is written for two choirs, the second a semichorus or quartet which presents Latin tags which respond to and enhance the first choir’s English text. The CD booklet ought helpfully to have translated the Latin. Timing at 3:01, I’m not sure Grote’s tempo is the marked Andante lento, but the smooth presentation and clear dynamic contrasts are effective. However, I would have liked more distinction between the two choirs to emphasize that of the languages of the texts. The use of solo voices in the second choir, as in the 2019 recording by Clare College Cambridge Choir/Graham Ross (Harmonia Mundi HMM 905329) achieves this, timing at 3:20, the Latin tags illuminating the personal nature of the worship. Timing at 3:16, Higginbottom also has more room for manoeuvre than Grote and the result is a more satisfyingly emotive account, for instance in the more marked, adoring rallentando of the second choir’s ‘Maria’ at the end of the first verse and both choirs’ more spacious ‘Effecta’ pointing up the first choir’s only taking up of the Latin.
Hymn to St Cecilia (tr. 16) is, textually, the most secular piece on this CD. It sets three Auden poems dedicated to Britten, published together as ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day’, a cultural link with comparable verse of the seventeenth century set to music by Purcell, while Britten makes a musical link by having passages for soloists as well as chorus. In dedicating the poems to Britten, I suggest Auden is identifying him as the 20th century representative, if you like embodiment, of the saint (he was, after all, born on that saint’s day) and Britten seeks to convey the magic of music just as Auden revels in poetics. The first poem and setting begin Quietly flowing. The tenors start pp sustained in dotted minims and alternate with dovetailing basses. Above them the sopranos and altos, pp smooth and very sweetly deliver the same text largely in crotchets, so more of it. What we get, then, is a simultaneous relaxation in the lower, and activity in the upper, parts, an advantage music has over verse. In Norwich’s performance the contrast is well marked in that, while the men are all calm, the boys and girls have a happy, holiday like engagement with the situation which matches the playfulness of a text not short on innuendo. I like this, though I’m not sure the marking sweetly is caught and the crescendos are clearer than the diminuendos, but the crescendos are more important in getting the text across. This climaxes with the first sopranos, forte on top G (0:51) as the upper voices sustain a note for the first time while the lower for the first time repeat a full text.
The alternation now changes, with the lower parts beginning the text and the first sopranos dovetailing then continuing it. ‘At sounds so entrancing’ (1:18) sees the return of the original pattern and you have to know the pp bass entry is there to be able to discern it as the texture is now more complex with all parts continually engaged. The first sopranos’ climax is now G sharp (1:47). The first poem has finished and now there’s a refrain, unison ppp, mezza voce, smooth, beginning ’Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions/To all musicians, appear and inspire’ (2:01), thus identifying the saint’s role and the first sopranos and tenors reach top G sharp, only a poco crescendo, illustrating that desired flash of inspiration.
Auden’s second poem, ’I cannot grow’ (2:34), is the second section and it’s difficult to hear the very first low E of the opening first sopranos’ entry, Lively and also pp lightly. What does come across is the spidery quality of this scherzo, the end of its theme, mainly in quavers, being ‘I only play’. As in the first section, two parts have a sustained dotted minim pulse below this, altos and basses here. Norwich’s quaver flitting is certainly scintillant, though I feel the dotted minim projection, a kind of serene emotion recollected in tranquillity, is a touch disadvantaged in projection. The first sopranos have two sustained note climactic moments, forte to top G sharp (3:18) and then top G (3:24) at ‘I am defeat’, but their closing plea solo, ppp, ‘Love me’, is more telling. The ‘Blessed Cecilia’ refrain returns now f and demanding, the top G sharp let full rip this time.
Auden’s third poem, ‘O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall’ is headed With movement, the basses plying a descending phrase in crotchets and quavers, a mantra of discipline, pp rather marked and all the other parts with sustained lines interwoven. The magic moment of the piece is the soprano solo ‘O dear white children casual as birds’ (5:55), p, always simply and smooth over sopranos, altos and tenors, ppp, always very quiet and sustained. The Norwich solo is delivered with a glowing simplicity combined with a directness of confrontation. As it is ending, the basses cut in with a rather animated protesting version of their original mantra, ‘O cry created as the bow of sin’ (7:21) but the resultant busy, imitative choral texture is relieved by a parade of solos imitating instruments flagged by the chorus. First, a mezzo, ‘O weep, child weep’ in the style of a violin (7:32), the entry until ‘child’ for me insufficiently distinct, which suggests the chorus should diminuendo more on ‘violin’. Second, a bass ‘that what has been may never be again’ clearly articulating low C like a kettledrum (7:53). Third, a soprano calmly ‘O bless the freedom that you never chose’ (8:18) like a flute. And fourth, most memorably, a tenor lively, with force, ff, starting in trumpet fanfare manner, ‘O wear your tribulation like a rose’ (8:45). Now the closing ‘Blessed Cecilia’ refrain, ppp very smooth and sweetly, though the poco crescendo on top G sharp could for me be gentler, leaves a two-octave spread from bass low E as the ppp ‘immortal fire’ dies away.
The published score gives a duration of 12 minutes. Higginbottom takes 10:47, Grote 9:52. For me, Higginbottom’s greater measure is a bonus in textual clarity. His opening section has a more flowing, meditative quality which makes the upper parts sweeter. There’s a beguilingly manicured, crafted melodic phrasing which suits the poetic style where Grote’s focus is on direct experience of the text. In the second section Higginbottom’s entries are clearer right from that first low E, as is the balance between the parts. But I like the insubstantial quality of Grote’s light articulation and prefer his stronger refrain and its climax. In the third section Higginbottom’s ‘O dear white children’ soloist, Inigo Jones, is bright and creamy, his relatively small tone quite affecting in pointing the power of innocence, but his backing chorus ought then to have been quieter. The New College poco crescendo in the final refrain is better judged than Norwich’s.
Britten’s Festival Te Deum (tr. 17) is totally different from his earlier setting (tr. 12), as the CD booklet points out ‘The opening and closing sections introduce the technique of polymetric writing, with the unison line of the choir notated in frequently changing metres according to word stress against the regular but slowly changing chords of the organ part.’ These are good booklet notes which consistently attend to the choral and organ features, as might be expected from a former Organist and Master of Music at the Cathedral, Michael Nicholas. And the point here is significant because what gives the setting its power, inexplicable given its apparent, however stately, steadiness is the organ operating one, eternal pulse and the voices another, much changing. The opening is marked Andante con moto, the unison voices sempre p e comodo, comfortable secured by generally low register. It’s a humble homage, an unusual but thought-provoking setting of these words, at first quietly warm and serene, yet the dynamics carefully graded and followed by Grote to climax from p to ff, making the statement ‘Lord God of Sabaoth!’ (1:03) just as stark as in Britten’s first Te Deum setting.
At the trebles’ ‘The glorious company of the Apostles, praise Thee’ (1:24), the voices divide for the first time, not conventionally tiered from basses through to trebles as in the earlier setting, but trebles, then tenors, then basses, then altos, tenors, basses and trebles dovetailed at closer intervals, where I feel the mf cresc. entries from Norwich CC might have been firmer. At 2:16 there’s an extraordinary melisma on ‘Comforter’, unison voices with, in the trebles, beginning top G, p, and descending to B below middle C, quite a searching, even painful illumination of comfort. This is immediately followed by the work’s second section, loud and Più mosso ed energico, ‘Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ’ (2:38), suddenly a loud, choral wailing intensity, offset by an equally sudden soft section, ‘When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man’ (2:55), with marcato emphasis of jazzy syncopations. As well as the loud-soft pattern, another regular feature of contrast is the separating of the treble line in a sustained note over the other parts or introducing and then repeating parts of the text in alternation with the other parts. This section climaxes with the trebles divided into two parts in the closing loud chorus to provide a top B at the end of their last ‘glory’ (3:52), you could say ecstatic, also operatic Norwich. The third and final section opens with a treble solo, ‘O Lord save Thy people’ (4:08) from Eve Garrard, Head Girl Chorister. She brings ecstasy to this, but also clarity and a smoothness of joy. The chorus prays ‘Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin’, comminciando pp e poco a poco cresc. which means getting started then gradually louder, as if this thought has only just come to mind, with many entries between the parts at close quarters, as if the speed of realization of what’s needed varies from one group to another. But, even more than in the first section, the dynamic range here is from pp to ff, the latter for the trebles’ parade of top Gs at ‘O Lord in Thee have I trusted’ (5:25), a stunning blaze of sound from Norwich, though the octave plunge to low treble G might have been clearer as a diminuendo isn’t marked in the voices until the following phrase, ‘Let me never be confounded.’ While the choir finishes singing this end of the prayer, the soloist sings the phrase again above their voices, but ending alone, though and because it makes great demands on the performers. Norwich do well and, for me, better than New College, who sing with ease and style, but with less dynamic contrast their opening comparatively lacks Norwich’s humility. Their second section is urgent but not as stressed as Norwich’s, nor is the softer section as much of a light contrast. Their trebles’ top G climax line similarly doesn’t quite have Norwich’s intensity. New College trebles’ octave drop after the climax is marginally clearer. Their treble soloist, Hugh Finnerty, sings with great purity and with a little vibrato which adds a winsome, emotive quality, but I prefer Eve Garrard’s smoothness.
In Grote’s account of the opening Procession in plainsong of A Ceremony of Carols, quite fast without disturbing clarity, comes a sense of eagerness and the specialty of entering the building for this experience. There are two repeats of the closing Alleluias: you can have as many as the size of the building necessitates and Norwich Cathedral has an unusually long nave. Eagerness is even more apparent in the first carol, Wolcum Yole! In the CD booklet 13 boy choristers and 23 girl choristers are listed. Did they all sing? Maybe. In this piece they sound a bit not long out of the playground, but it’s great to hear these young voices enjoying themselves. Things do get a bit more spiritual at the very soft evocation of ‘Candelmesse, Quene of bliss’ (tr. 19, 0:39) and the commonality of ‘Wolcum bothe to more and lesse’ (0:46). There is no Rose, marked Allegretto, I feel is a touch too nonchalant in its fluency, the words not sounding special enough, though the angelic chorus climax at the first trebles top A on ‘Deo’ (tr. 20, 1:00) is excellent and the balance at ‘Transeamus’ (1:21), where the first trebles are an octave higher than the seconds and thirds, is very good, so both parts are equally clear and we really do get a sense of ‘both more and less’ being equally welcome, as stated in the previous carol.
That Yongë child is the first carol for solo voice, but parlante, and head girl chorister Eve Garrard well conveys the rawness of the text against the eeriness of the repeated harp motif. Balulalow, for me the most haunting setting of the work, its Andante piacevole taken quite fast but welcoming, benefits from a fine solo by Frederica Davies, particularly when at the end she has to soar over the chorus. The latter are full of joy in As dew in Aprille and the pace of the interaction of the three parts creates a kaleidoscopic effect. By contrast This little Babe seems a touch slow for Presto con fuoco, but I sympathize with Grote that the words need to be clear, which they are, as does the staggering of the entries of the parts, which could be clearer. But top marks again for the first trebles’ closing top G.
I like the sunniness Elizabeth Green brings to the harp solo Interlude in which you’ll recognize snatches of the Procession’s plainsong. This makes the following carol, In Freezing Winter Night even more felt, the singers attacking the accents creepily and the distribution of the three parts very clear, so there’s a mosaic effect. I feel Britten’s interest was here more in the mosaic than the words, though they’re still clear enough. Grote displays well the starkness of realization at the climax, ‘The Prince is come from heaven.” (tr. 26, 2:20). It’s interesting to hear the thinner but more crystalline tone of boy choristers as soloists in both this piece over the chorus and on their own in the Spring Carol. As in the first carol, in the last, Deo Gracias, eagerness is almost palpable and the heady excitement of the confrontation of entries by the three parts is Dionysian.
How then does Higginbottom with all boys’ voices compare? His slightly slower Wolcum Yole! (1:35 against Grote’s 1:23) has more rhythmic emphasis but less dynamic contrast at the ‘Candelmesse’ passage. In his slower There is no Rose (2:26 against Grote’s 2:07) more is made of the words and the alternation of English and Latin texts is clearer, so the latter sound like an ancient warning. New College Choir’s first trebles’ top A on ‘Deo’ seems a bit shouted, but this might be owing to the resonant acoustic of New College Chapel as the problem recurs with other high notes. It does make the first trebles’ ‘Transeamus’ more uplifting. For me the boy soloists in That Yongë child and Balulalow have less character than Grote’s girl soloists. Both choirs give fine accounts of As dew in Aprille, while the staggering of the entries in This little Babe is more effective from Higginbottom. However, In Freezing Winter Night has more tension from Grote and the same applies in Deo Gracias.
To sum up, then, Grote here presents a good cross section of Britten’s sacred choral works which stands up well in comparison with earlier recordings, owing to its freshness of approach, often sensitive attention to dynamic contrasts and revealing Britten as a dramatist even in this sacred context. This relates to another distinctive feature of this disc: that Britten’s work fares well here in a larger acoustic than that for which most of these pieces were written. For me this confirms Britten was searching for the expression of spirituality, however eclectic and exotic the texts he sometimes chose.
see also Britten:
A Ceremony of Carols by Len Mullenger