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Britten choral 4785947
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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A Ceremony of Carols, op.28 [22:51]
A Boy Was Born, op.3 [28:00]
Corpus Christi Carol [2:21]
A Wealden Trio: The Song of the Women [2:27]
The Sycamore Tree [1:32]
A Shepherd’s Carol [4:05]
The Holly and the Ivy (Trad. arr Britten) [4:46]
Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
The Wilbye Consort/Peter Pears
rec. 1961-90
Presto CD
DECCA 478 5947 [66:02]

‘Tis the season of good will to all mankind, even to those record companies desperately raiding their archives for something to make a few Christmas bob on. Fortunately, this CD, though its contents have been trawled from far and wide, contains enough genuine gems to be worth buying.

The first two pieces are conducted by Stephen Cleobury, who served as conductor of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge from 1982 until a couple of months before his death. He died in 2019 in his home town of York on November 22nd – which appropriately enough is the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. He was a much-loved and respected character in Cambridge, and an important part of its cultural history. A consummate organist and choir director, he brought a new openness to the sound of the famous choir, moving on from what some saw as the beautiful but sometimes precious timbre cultivated by earlier directors.

So this CD benefits enormously by having a couple of Cleobury’s Britten recordings as its first two items. A Ceremony of Carols is a sequence of Christmas settings that Britten began on the dangerous sea trip from the USA back to England in 1942. It’s scored for upper voices with harp accompaniment, and contains many delightful numbers. This forthright and wholehearted performance under Cleobury does full justice to the work, with outstanding choral and solo work. One or two of the tempi are a little on the optimistic side, especially This little babe, and this isn’t the only recording where that number ends up as a bit of a scramble. But that is almost written into the music, and you can sense the defiance of the boys – ‘let’s go for it, and devil take the hindmost’ is the attitude, which for me vindicates the headlong speed.

To counterbalance that, Balulalow, sung by an unnamed treble, is the exquisite gem it always should be, while the solo harp interlude, in the hands of Rachel Masters, takes its place as a profound meditation on the plainsong from the Nativity Vespers, Hodie Christus natus est, that Britten uses to bookend this miraculous composition.

A boy was born is the composer’s op. 3, and was composed – unbelievably – when Britten was nineteen. It is a theme and variations – a form Britten loved – based on Britten’s own eponymous melody, which you can find today in Carols for Choirs Book 1. The work was first performed in 1934 in a BBC broadcast, with Leslie Woodgate conducting the ‘Wireless Chorus (somewhat overshadowed by the death of Elgar the same day). Arguably, some of the quicker sections are too lengthy and involved for their own good, especially the main part of the Finale. But there are two variations that are wholly worthy to be counted amongst Britten’s best music – what an achievement for a composer of that age! The variations in question are, firstly, Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour, where the adult choir muses softly on the text, while a solo treble rises and falls to the word ‘Jesu’, the range widening at each repetition. Then later comes the combination of two lyrics within one number; Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak midwinter creates the background like a blanket of snow, while the trebles give us the unfolding story of the Corpus Christi Carol, that mysterious mediaeval text. Britten sets this (the original tune is lost) to a gently rocking melody with touches of the Lydian mode; it’s impossible to describe the delicate beauty of the music that results.

These works both receive fine performances in the hands of Cleobury and the choir. I am a great admirer of the recording of A Ceremony of Carols by the Czech choir Boni Pueri, who sing with such touching directness (on the Zentiva label), while A Boy Was Born is characterised powerfully by Terry Edwards and the London Sinfonietta Voices for Virgin Classics. Those are my current personal favourites for the two pieces, but Cleobury’s accounts have a great deal going for them, and will not disappoint Britten devotees.

The remainder of the CD is taken up by a series of so-called ‘Bonus Tracks’, a curious description, since without them the CD would be barely 50 minutes long. Nevertheless, there are some interesting items here, especially Britten’s arrangement for voice and piano of his Corpus Christi Carol, mentioned above as a movement in A Boy Was Born. Britten made this version in 1961 for the boy alto John Hahessy, whose voice has a very special beauty as recorded here. The singer was from a modest London-Irish background, and has gone on to have a distinguished career as a tenor, after changing his name to John Elwes.

A welcome, if slightly variable, collection of Britten items, which should go down well in the Christmas season.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Performance details
The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Ladies from Cambridge University Choir/Stephen Cleobury, Rachel Masters (harp), John Hahessy (alto), Benjamin Britten (piano), The Wilbye Consort/Peter Pears, Hazel Holt (soprano), Jennifer Barber (alto), Kenneth Bowen (tenor), Christopher Kyte (bass), Elizabethan Singers, Simon Preston (organ)/Louis Halsey
Rec. London, 1961 (Corpus Christi Carol) London 1963 (The Holly and the Ivy), Petersham 1976 (A Wealden Trio, The Sycamore Tree, A Shepherd’s Carol) Cambridge 1990 (A Ceremony of Carols, A Boy Was Born)

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