Sunday 24 February 2013

CD Review - Britten boxed set

The Britten Collection - the Sixteen
Benjamin Britten wrote choral music throughout his life and some of his most dazzling, brilliant works are written for choir. But there is something slightly odd about the chronology. Though he did write for choir throughout his life, those major pieces for choir, either unaccompanied or with a single instrument, stop after the early 1950’s. It might be thought that he simply had no more to say in the genre, after all he had written The Hymn to St Cecilia, A Boy was Born, Rejoice in the Lamb and the Five Flower Songs. But there is also A.M.D.G written in 1939, one of Britten’s most direct and powerful utterances, then withdrawn by the composer and never heard in his lifetime. Of course, there were such works as the Spring Symphony and the War Requiem, but it would be over 20 years before he wrote another major work for unaccompanied choir, the enigmatic Sacred and Profane, written for Peter Pears and the madrigal consort that he had created at a period when he and Britten were no longer performing together.

So this 3CD set of Britten’s choral music from Harry Christophers and the Sixteen is a record of a brilliant composer, but also a record of an enigma. The set is not complete, they have not recorded A.M.D.G but all the other major pieces are there, along with many of Britten’s smaller, incidental pieces. The disc are not new, they were recorded and issued separately, many briefly available on the Collins Classics label and have been repackaged by Coro. Now they have been packaged together, a testament to the sheer amazingness of Britten’s talent.

We start at the very beginning with A Hymn to the Virgin written when Britten was still at school. Christophers and the Sixteen display their familiar virtues, a great beauty of line, perfect placement and clarity of texture. Perhaps more could be made of the words. There follow five occasional pieces from various periods of Britten’s working life. A Hymn to St Columba is a wonderfully vigorous piece with organ accompaniment. Hymn to St. Peter opens with a hymn-like choral texture with a moving bass in the organ, leading to a middle section with a delicate texture like the Hymn to Saint Cecilia. Antiphon alternates vigorous writing with more quiet intense passages. Te Deum in C is an early piece, but rich and subtle and certainly not the sort of pompous writing that you can get with settings of this text. Then Jubilate Deo, bright, imaginative and joyful , designed as a pair with the Te Deum.

Then we come to one of the highlights, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Britten’s dazzling setting of W.H.Auden’s complex text, written as the composer was leaving the USA to return to the UK. Christophers opens with a light and steady texture, but which doesn’t quite have the dancing feel that I like here. That said, the textures are beautiful, with superb clarity and a firmness of line. The middle section is sung with simply dazzling speed and lightness, a complete tour de force. The final has a fine soprano solo, supported by some light choral singing, but with plenty of vigour where necessary.

The Festival Te Deum was Britten’s second setting of the text. Though he uses a texture of unison choir with organ for a lot of the piece, Britten taxes the choir by his use of varied and uneven time signatures. The result is vigorous and striking.

The final work on the first disc is Britten’s setting of Christopher Fry, Rejoice in the Lamb. In the early movements, the choral singing is superb in its quiet control, but I would have rather liked a little more organ. Carys Lane is delightful in the soprano solo For I will consider my cat Joffrey. But, when I have sung in the work myself, I have always found a rather skittish humour in it, one that does not completely come over in the Sixteen’s quite straight performance. But as the later movements introduce complexity, they respond with great strength and brilliance.

The second disc opens Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, a work written whilst Britten was travelling home to the UK from the USA in 1942. In it, Britten showed his genius for coming up with a musical language which seems so right, at once ancient and new. The first version of the work was premiered in 1942 by a choir of women's voices. Britten then added That yonge Childe and the solo harp interlude; this final version was premiered in 1943 by the Morriston Boys' Choir.

The Sixteen, of course, use adult voices but the women bring a lovely firm, clear bright tone to the piece which whilst not completely boyish does at least contain the suggestion. However, his crisp brilliantness of tone does occasionally veer towards hardness, for instance in Wolcum Yole. Though they fine a wonderful grave beauty in moments such as There is no Rose. And the more rhythmic moments, such as This little babe are fabulous. What impresses is the care with which each element is placed, and the combination of lightness and firmness of tone. But the use of counter-tenors on the lowest line (3 men plus Sarah Connolly), does give the vocal line a very distinctive timbre that takes it away from the boyish. Sioned Williams is the completely excellent harpist.

Also on the boat in 1942, Britten had texts for a Christmas oratorio by W.H.Auden. All that is left of this is A Shepherd's Carol first performed in 1944. It is a gem with an appealing astringency to the harmony. Another gem is the part song The Sycamore Tree originally written in 1931 but re-written in 1968. Also from 1931 and re-written in 1966 is Sweet was the song, which lives in the world of A Ceremony of Carols.

Britten's Missa Brevis in D was written for the George Malcolm and the choristers of Westminster Cathedral. Premiered in 1959 it is a piece which celebrates the fierce, bright 'continental' tone of the boys, so different from the traditional Anglican choir. The choir also used boys on the alto line rather than adult counter-tenors. The Sixteen use a similar mixture of women and men as on the recording of A Ceremony of Carols. Any doubts I might have had were dispelled by the fierce brilliance and lovely focussed bright tone of the women in the opening Kyrie. The words of the Gloria are enunciated with wonderful crispness and both the singers and the organist, Margaret Phillips, catch the jazzy undertones to the rhythms. The fierceness continues into the Sanctus in just the right way, with some superb pointing of the rhythms in the Benedictus (which a friend of mine maintained was a deliberate and naughty pun on Britten's part). They bring a darker, more edgy tone to the concluding Agnus Dei.

Finally on this disc, the work of Britten's which was his first choral publication and his first choral music to be broadcast (in 1934), A Boy was Born. Here Britten showed is natural perspicacity for selecting texts and produced some elaborate vocal counterpoint of a style that he would rarely write again. For this work the Sixteen are joined by the choristers of St. Paul's Cathedral (director John Scott) with Jamie Hopkins as the soloist.

They open with stunning control and quiet intensity, which develops into something strong and flexible. Lullay, Jesu is quietly beautiful, with a lovely solo. Herod is of course nicely vigorous, with In the Bleak Mid Winter eerily haunting, the contribution of the boys making the piece quite, quite beautiful. Then, of course, there is the amazing ending a dazzling mixture of texts which he sets in quite brilliant fashion, but daring to have the moment of stasis in the middle before all hell lets loose. The Sixteen are quite brilliant here, showing of the superb choral writing.

For the final disc we have Britten 's three major later works for chorus. Choral Dances from Gloriana was originally arranged by the composer in 1954 from music from the 1953 opera; that version is the familiar one for unaccompanied chorus. In 1967 he produced another version which restored more of the original material from the opera, adding a harp and a tenor soloist who introduces the sequence and links the movements. This version is a more coherent dramatic whole, as in the opera, rather than simply a sequence of part-songs. The surprise, for those that know the version of unaccompanied chorus only, is that the tenor sings with the choir at times.

Here the Sixteen are joined by veteran tenor Ian Partridge and harpist Helen Tunstall. Time is brilliant with crisp, upfront tone, rhythmically subtle at quite a brisk speed. Concord is hushed and perfect, if at rather a slow tempo (or at least slower than the one I'm used to singing it at). Time and Concord is delicate and gentle. Country Girls is nicely perky, though there are hints of strain in the upper tones of the sopranos. Rustics and Fisherman are suitably brisk and crisp, before the wonderful hush of the opening of the Final Dance of Homage.

Advance Democracy is a rare example of Britten's political views showing directly in his music. Written in 1938 he sets a text by Randall Swingler (who wrote many texts for Alan Bush's workers' songs). The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard for male chorus and piano (Stephen Westrop) was written in 1943 for a friend in a prison camp in Germany, the score sent out page by page by microfilm. It is a terrific piece, receiving a vivid performance here and deserves to be better known.

The Wedding Anthem, Amo Ergo Sum was written for the marriage of the Earl of Harewood to Marion Stein in 1949. It is a long piece, lasting nearly nine minutes in this performance, but richer and far more subtle than might have been expected, setting a flowery text by Ronald Duncan (librettist of The Rape of Lucretia). There are solos for soprano and tenor, but the results are a bit odd, certainly not conventionally joyous and they cast a slightly uneasy air over proceedings.

The Five Flower Songs were written in 1950 and are a brilliant re-evaluation of the English part-song with a typically astute collection of poems. The work was dedicated to Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst on their silver wedding and celebrates the couple's love of botany. They owned Dartington Hall and the piece was premiered there by a student choir conducted by Imogen Holst. (The couple had also contributed significantly to the cost of setting up the English Opera Group).

Christophers brings a lovely ebb and flow to To Daffodils. The Succession of the Four Sweet Months opens from a delightful austerity of line to a rich climax. George Crabbe's Marsh Flowers is sung in a vivid manner, with a wonderfully deadpan quiet ending. The Evening Primrose is simply beautiful, then the Ballad of Green Broom is simply dazzling in its verbal dexterity, both the sheer control at the opening then the speed of the ending.

Finally we come to Britten's final work for choir, Sacred and Profane written for Peter Pears and the Wilbye Consort, a madrigal group with just five voices. But the work has been adopted by choirs and is here sung by 18 singers. The eight short movements set a mixture of medieval English texts both sacred ones and passionately profane ones. Though there are musical links between the pieces, the movements are all effectively separate creating a sequence of short, startlingly vivid moment. Britten's late style is harmonically sophisticated and difficult to bring off, particularly as Britten was concerned to show off the individual voices of the consort in a virtuoso manner.

The Sixteen open St Godric's Hymn in a vividly passionate manner, bringing this intense passion to many other moments in the cycle. But moments such as I mon waxe wod are taken with fine lightness. There is a lovely shape to the phrases, with the singers joining as one and some great vigour in The long night. I have to confess that I still find the work slightly puzzling, but the performance from Christophers and the Sixteen convinced me in ways that other performances have not.

The set does not include all of Britten's choral music, and I think that the lack of A.M.D.G. is a serious gap particularly as the Sixteen would perform it so brilliantly. The recordings are now generally quite old, but do not show their age. There is one issue that I must come back to, generally the singers do not make enough of the words for my taste. I get the feeling that this is a stylistic thing, with an emphasis on beauty of line, but with Britten's fine settings of English poets I just wanted more words.

Here we have all of Britten's talent in all its amazing variety. All the performances catch the pieces well and, whilst there are individual performances which might be better elsewhere, I can think of few other groups who could record all this in such a satisfying way. If you don't know Britten's choral music well, or even if you think you do, I can highly recommend this set.

Britten Choral Works
Hymn to the Virgin (1930) [3.46]
A Hymn of Saint Columba (1962) [2.00]
Hymn to Saint Peter (1955) [6.07]
Antiphon [5.27]
Te Deum in C (1934) [8.44]
Jubilate Deo (1961) [2.37]
Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1942) [10.46]
Festival Te Deum (1944) [6.20]
Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) [17.07]
A Ceremony of Carols (1942/43) [21.24]
A Shepherd’s Carol (1944) [3.29]
The Sycamore Tree (1931/1968) [1.44]
Sweet was the Song (1931/1966) [2.27]
Missa Brevis in D (1959) [9.26]
A Boy was Born (1934) [32.08]
Choral Dances from Gloriana (1953) [11.52]
Advance Democracy (1938) [3.15]
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (1943) [8.28]
A Wedding Anthem (1949) [8.59]
Five Flower Songs (1950) [9.39]
Sacred and Profane (1974-75) [15.49]

The Sixteen
Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral (director John Scott)
Ian Partridge (tenor)
Sioned Williams (harp)
Helen Tunstall (harp)
Margaret Phiillips (organ)
Stphen Westrop (piano)
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded 1991, 1992
CORO 16107  [62.56, 69.37, 60.10]

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