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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cantata Academica, Op.62 [20.57]
Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Op.27 [10.30]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930, rev.1934) [3.56]
Gloriana (1953): Choral dances [8.58]
Missa Brevis in D, Op.63 [10.18]
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op.30 [16.00]
Westminster Cathedral Choir (Missa)
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/George Malcolm (Cantata, Hymns, Gloriana)
Purcell Singers/Benjamin Britten (Rejoice)
rec. 1957-61
ELOQUENCE 484 0658 [71.19]

This collection from the ever-enterprising Eloquence stable assembles items from three separate Decca issues of music by Benjamin Britten which involve the participation either as conductor or organist of George Malcolm. The latter was the director of the choir of Westminster Cathedral for whom the composer wrote his Missa Brevis, and participated in several releases of music by Britten in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At one time I possessed at least two of these issues in the shape of mono LPs, and most of the items on the discs were at the time world première recordings of what have now become established as central pillars of the choral repertoire. It is good to welcome them back to the catalogue, especially it is stated that some have surprisingly not previously found their way onto Decca CD releases.

The one item that has real scarcity value here is the live recording of the Missa Brevis which was originally issued on a mono Decca EP. For those of a certain age, I should perhaps explain that an EP was a record that played at 45 rpm like a pop single but had an extended playing time (hence EP) and generally was used for pop releases of four tracks. Decca did at this time release some classical material on EP (Pavarotti made his first recording in this form) but the format did not find much favour with collectors, and its use for classical music was more or less extinct by the mid-1960s – which is presumably when this recording of the Missa Brevis disappeared from the catalogues; maybe, also, because even for EP this disc would have offered somewhat short measure. I must admit that, apart from being a record of the work given by its original performers (with an uncredited conductor and soloists), it is not a particularly recommendable version. The recording itself has a tendency to come and go in the audio spectrum; some of the choral singing is at best approximate; the soloists are a mixed bunch, some much better than others, and the organ in the Agnus Dei sounds unpleasantly as though a taxi from the streets outside has found its way into the cathedral. Britten may have written the music with the sound of these boys’ voices in mind – he found their forthright delivery a pleasant change from the more cultured production of choirs from the Oxbridge colleges – but I suspect that they might have produced a better impression in other circumstances than a live performance. The producer of the recording, like some of the participants, remains unclear or anonymous.

The recording of Rejoice in the Lamb appeared originally in a coupling with the early Britten work A Boy is Born and I had not previously encountered it except in mono sound. Here, George Malcolm at the organ is given better presence in the stereo balance than I recall from that old LP, and the vocal rendition by the Purcell Singers is also stronger than I remember. But hearing the recording again after a gap of some forty years, I find some of the performance surprisingly fast, and beautiful passages like the central tenor solo For the flowers are great blessings and the heartrending chorus For I am under the same accusation as my Saviour which follows it have sounded better in more recent recordings which allow the music more room to expand. Nor is the solo singing in the cantata particularly involved, with Donald Francke less than portentous in what should be an impressive solo, and decidedly cautious in his delivery of the line “and therefore he is God”.

The unaccompanied Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Hymn to the Virgin, and choral dances from Gloriana, now with the London Symphony Chorus, are conducted by George Malcolm.  The early Hymn to the Virgin is given a very beautiful rendition, with nicely balanced semi-choral forces set at a slight distance; the dances from Gloriana, after an abruptly loud start, settle down to a smoother rendition with the Concord movement relishing Britten’s delicate harmonic shifts which do so much to illuminate what might in other hands have seemed merely trite words. The words of Auden’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia are of course anything but trite, and in the first two sections Malcolm relishes Britten’s word-setting with a delightful thistledown delivery of the scherzo-like I cannot grow. He is less successful in the long final section, where the chorus sound sometimes slightly uneasy in their tuning, and the solo singers who imitate instruments (and are uncredited) are a little too polite and decorous in their impersonations of violin, drum, flute and trumpet. But the soprano soloist here is something else, a beautifully floating voice over the choral texture which deserved acknowledgement.

I did suspect that this anonymous voice might have been that of Jennifer Vyvyan, who was the soprano soloist in the recording of the Cantata Academica with which the unaccompanied pieces were originally coupled on LP and which is the principal work on this newly reissued CD. This has been on CD before (as has the Hymn to Saint Cecilia) and although it is an occasional work of no great significance – it has not been taken up into the general repertory in the same way as the other works on this disc, for example – it is well worth hearing as an example of Britten’s experimentation with twelve-tone technique, although it does not sound in the slightest like twelve-tone music of the school of Schoenberg or even Berg. The starry cast of solo singers – apart from Vyvyan, we hear Helen Watts, Peter Pears, and Owen Brannigan – are part of the ‘Aldeburgh school’ and as such know Britten’s style backwards. And the recording, even after more than fifty years, still sounds excellent.

However, it is difficult to appreciate the Latin words of the Cantata Academica without printed texts and translations, and their absence here (they were provided with earlier mid-price issues) does not help listeners – especially since the lyrics are not so readily obtainable elsewhere. The same observation could also be made regarding the texts for Rejoice in the Lamb and the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, where the listener really needs to be engaged closely with the words that the singers are delivering, no matter how good their diction may be (and it is pretty good). We could perhaps have sacrificed the full-page photograph of George Malcolm, another page showing the original album covers, and some generic and anonymous booklet notes in order to have this material - but then, these are historically important recordings which have value in their own right.

A decade or so after these première recordings a new generation of performers began to place their interpretations of these works on disc. A collection by King’s College Cambridge under Sir David Willcocks and Philip Ledger on EMI also included the Missa Brevis, Rejoice in the Lamb, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia and The Hymn to the Virgin adding as a considerable inducement to potential purchasers the Ceremony of Carols to provide a conspectus of Britten’s most popular small-scale works for chorus. I don’t know whether in its latest 2004 Warner Classics incarnation this disc provides texts and translations, but they were supplied in the original CD issue.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 April and 6 November 1957, All Souls, Langham Place, London (Rejoice), live, 22 July 1959, Westminster Cathedral, London (missa), 17 March 1961, Kingsway Hall, London (cantata), 18 May 1961, Kingsway Hall, London (Hymns, Gloriana)

Cantata: Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Helen Watts (contralto), Sir Peter Pears (tenor), Owen Brannigan (bass)
Rejoice: Michael Hartnett (treble), Jonathan Steele (alto), Philip Todd (tenor), Donald Francke (bass), George Malcolm (organ)

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