A Ceremony of Carols
Tanya Houghton (harp)
Eleanor Carter & Ashley Chow (organ)
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge / Graham Ross
rec. June 2019, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak and St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM905329 [74:58]
The principal item on this new release from Graham Ross and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge is Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols so I’ll deal with that first. However, the remainder of the programme not only includes some very interesting music but has also been assembled with great discernment.
A Ceremony of Carols was originally composed in 1942 for three-part upper-voice choir and harp, but what Graham Ross offers here is the SATB arrangement made the following year by Julius Harrison (1885-1963) at the request of the publishers, Boosey & Hawkes. I presume that Britten didn’t demur from this and Graham Ross comments that the composer was a pragmatist who wanted his music to be widely accessible. Many years ago, I had the good fortune to sing this work as a treble – though at the time I’m certain I wasn’t sufficiently conscious of just how fortunate I was to be taught such challenging music and to perform it. More recently, I’ve sung the Harrison version and it’s good that adult mixed choirs have the opportunity to sing this music. That said, and without denying Harrison’s arranging skills, I have an unswerving preference for the original version. It’s often disconcerting to hear basses and tenors singing lines that, in the original, would be sung by trebles. Above all, I find I miss the fresh innocence of treble voices and, on occasion such as in ‘This little babe’, the cutting edge of trebles.
That said, this is an extremely fine account of the Harrison arrangement. At the beginning, and even more so at the end, the processional effect as the sopranos sing ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is extremely well managed. Following in the score, it was readily apparent as early as ‘Wolcum Yole!’ how scrupulously the Clare College singers observe the dynamics – and it really makes a difference. I don’t know why Harrison changed ‘That yonge child’ from solo treble, scoring it instead for unison sopranos. The Clare ladies sing it beautifully but the fragility of Britten’s original lone voice is missing. Happily, Harrison retained a solo voice for ‘Balulalow’ and Helena Mackie sings the solo line really well. Later, in ‘Deo Gracias’ the choir’s singing is terrifically incisive and this compensates for the loss of the cutting edge which trebles bring to this music. As I indicated, this is an excellent performance of A Ceremony of Carols. Not only does the choir sing splendidly but the success of the performance is enhanced by the marvellous playing of harpist Tanya Houghton. She excels throughout, nowhere more so than in the atmospheric Interlude based on ‘Hodie Christus natus est’.
There’s plenty more Britten on the programme and Graham Ross has built his programme really well; the ordering of the pieces on the disc has a great logic to it. Near the start we hear Britten’s Te Deum in C. This is another work that I well remember from my days as a treble. It’s early Britten, to be sure, but it’s highly effective. Helena Mackie is once again the soprano soloist and she sings her ethereal part (‘Thou art the King of Glory’) beautifully. Twenty-seven years later, Graham Ross tells us that it was the Duke of Edinburgh who prompted Britten to write a companion setting of the Jubilate. Despite the long gap between the two settings – and allowing for the fact that the Jubilate is a much jollier piece – it’s remarkable how well the two settings complement each other. In an example of his perceptive programme planning, Graham Ross surrounds these Canticles with two psalm settings by Britten, both of which are less familiar than a lot of his choral music. Venite exultemus Domino, a Latin setting of Psalm 95 for choir and organ, features mainly homophonic writing for the choir, which recalls chant. There are one or two dramatic moments but much of the music is quite subdued. The unaccompanied Deus in adjutorium meum intende, also sung in Latin, was part of the music that Britten wrote in 1945 for a radio play, This Way to the Tomb, by Ronald Duncan. I’ve never heard it before but it strikes me as an interesting and inventive response to the words of Psalm 70.
The three works to which Britten gave the title ‘Hymn’ are better known, especially A Hymn to the Virgin. This lovely piece, which is expertly done here, was written in 1930 and first performed at a concert the following year. The same concert included another premiere of a work that is almost contemporaneous, The Sycamore Tree. This was new to me and it came as a real surprise. This early piece is very skilful; the music is inventive and joyful. Just as much of a surprise is Britten’s arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy. I don’t recall hearing this before but it’s a nicely varied arrangement and deserves to be much better known.
‘Sweet was the song the Virgin sung’ may also be unfamiliar. It comes from a five-movement choral suite, Christ’s Nativity, which Britten wrote in early 1931 while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. The suite was never performed complete during Britten’s lifetime but it’s one of a number of early scores that were revived and recorded after he died. The complete suite was recorded by Stephen Layton for Hyperion in 1995 (CDA66825). ‘Sweet was the song the Virgin sung’ is probably the pick of the movements. It’s scored for solo voice and upper-voice choir. Interestingly, Stephen Layton had Catherine Wyn-Rogers (billed as a contralto) on his recording and it’s the case that the part is low-lying in places. However, Graham Ross allocates the solo to a soprano, Lottie Greenhow, and she sings beautifully. It’s a lovely, innocent setting and I’m very glad that Ross included it.
The program also includes a few pieces not by Britten. Ireland and Bridge have a direct connection since both taught the young composer. Ireland’s The Holy Boy is a little gem and the Clare College choir sings it delightfully. Frank Bridge’s Music, when soft voices die is a little bit out on a limb in this company because it’s neither a sacred piece nor has it even the loosest connection with Christmas. However, I’m certainly not going to grumble at its inclusion. It’s really lovely and it receives a dedicated performance. I think Graham Ross is right to suggest that Bridge may have been paying homage to his own teacher, Stanford. There’s no direct connection between Britten and Gustav Holst – other than great respect for Holst’s music on Britten’s part – although, of course, Britten had a strong association with Holst’s daughter, Imogen. I’m delighted, though, that Graham Ross has selected This have I done for my true love. For my money, it’s one of the finest English choral pieces inspired by the folk music tradition and it will be noted that if you play the disc in order Holst’s piece paves the way for two folksong inspired pieces by Britten; that’s astute programming. This have I done for my true love is a miniature masterpiece. The music is so varied and Holst’s use of key changes, dynamics and vocal colours make this a vivid response to the words. The performance is superb.
I’m a longstanding admirer of the recordings by The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge and Graham Ross; this is another excellent example of their work. As usual, the programming is intelligent and stimulating and here I particularly applaud the decision to record some short, less familiar works by Britten. The standard of performance never falls below the level of excellence that we’ve come to expect from this choir. Not only is the sound of the choir a delight in itself, in addition their discipline is enviable and their diction is consistently very good. The production values of their releases are always excellent too. As usual, the disc has been produced and engineered by John Rutter and he’s captured the choral sound excellently. In addition, the balance between choir and harp in A Ceremony of Carols and in some of the other items between choir and organ is ideal. An interesting booklet essay in which Graham Ross shares his enthusiasm for the music is the icing on the cake.
see also article by Len
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Venite exultemus Domino (1961) [4:11]
Te Deum in C (1934) [7:40)
Jubilate Deo in C (1961) [2:30]
Deus in adjutorium meum intende - from This Way to the Tomb (1944-45) [4:37]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930, rev, 1934) [3:23]
A Hymn of St Columba (1962) [2:01]
A Hymn to St Peter, Op 56a (1955) [5:57]
John IRELAND (1879-1963)
The Holy Boy (1941) [2:50]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Music, when soft voices die, H. 37 (1904) [3:26]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
This have I done for my true love, Op 34 no 1, H 128 (1916) [5:25]
The Sycamore Tree (1930, rev. 1967) [1:30]
Anonymous, arr, Britten
The Holly and the Ivy (1957) [3:36]
Sweet was the song the Virgin sung – from Christ’s Nativity (1931) [2:45]
A Ceremony of Carols (1942. Arr. for SATB by Julius Harrison, 1943) [21:53]
A New Year Carol, Op 7, no 3 – from Friday Afternoons (1933-35) [2:17]