Friday 22 November 2013

Britten - The Sacred Choral Music

Britten - Sacred Choral Music NCR1386
These discs from the choir of New College, Oxford, under Edward Higginbottom, represent an admirable survey of Britten's unaccompanied choral music which might reasonably be sung within the liturgy of the church. Some of it was explicitly designed for church use, though a projected complete set of canticles never achieved completion, but many of his major works are possible in church services. This means that on this disc we not only have the canticles and occasional anthems, and the Missa Brevis in D but also the Hymn to St Cecilia, A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb and two movements from AMDG. That the choir of New College, Oxford, uses trebles on the top line casts an interesting light on some of the music which we are more used to hearing performed by mixed ensembles.The discs were recorded in 2011 and 2012 and released on the choir's Novum label at the beginning this year, but the disc seemed a fitting tribute to Britten on his birthday.

This is particularly the case in the Hymn to St Cecilia but the music fits the sound of the choir brilliantly, their fine grained but narrow focussed tone combines strength with transparency and gives a lovely lightness to part one. In part two we have some brilliantly pointed rhythms from the trebles with fine, pinpoint infectious vividness. There is a lovely moment at the beginning of part three, which leads to a very fine treble solo from Inigo Jones. The balance here between soloist and choir is different to what might be achieved with a female soloist, but Higginbottom and his forces make it work brilliantly.  I don't know what sort of choir Britten was thinking of when he wrote the Hymn to St Cecilia but it works well with a choir of men and boys, fitting their style perfectly.

A Wedding Anthem (Amo ergo sum) was written for the wedding of Marion Stein and Lord Harewood in 1949. It is a very substantial work for an occasional wedding piece, lasting nearly nearly nine minutes. A lively and subtle piece with a brilliant opening, full of vibrant vitality, with organ accompaniment played by Lawrence Thain. There are lovely rhapsodic solos from treble Jonty Ward and from tenor Nick Pritchard. But by the end, I was feeling that Britten may have rather stretched his material a little too much.

Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the Most High comes from The Company of Heaven, Britten's radio cantata for the BBC written in 1937. It is mainly Anglican chant-like homophony with rhapsodic moments in the different voices of the choir. The Te Deum in C was written for St Mark's Church, North Audley Street who premiered it in 1936. This is one of those works which makes you think that Britten was at his best when not setting the formal liturgy, this is brilliant gebrauchsmusik, and the quieter moments are the best and most affecting. There is a lovely treble solo from Jonty Ward, Lawrence Thain accompanies on the organ.  The Jubilate Deo in E Flat dates from the same period, but wasn't published until 1984. It receives a performance of great vitality and verbal vividness. Steven Grahl accompanies.

The Hymn to St Peter sets words from the Gradual for the feast of SS Peter and Paul, it was written for the Quincentenary of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich in 1955. Here, a lively organ part (played by Lawrence Thain) is complemented with a rather homophonic choral part, before suddenly becoming more interesting with some lively delicate performances and a rhapsodic treble solo.

The Ceremony of Carols was written at the same time as Hymn to St. Cecilia and though performed by women's voices, it was conceived by Britten for boys' voices and I think that boys do bring something rather special to the timbre of the work. Granted, if you want perhaps a more sophisticated musicality then look to the Sixteen (who include the work on their own survey of Britten's choral music), but the trebles of the choir of New College, Oxford are some of the most musically sophisticated around at the moment and can certainly hold their own brilliantly in this work. They are accompanied on the harp by Emma Granger.

Procession sees the choir approaching from a distance, singing with their familiar focussed, vibrant, forward sound with long breathed lines. Wolcum Yole! is brightly lively, quite steady but nicely pointed words and subtlety in the lyric passages. There is no Rose is very seductive with a slightly hypnotic feel in the repetitions (is it only me, but the tune always reminds me of 'There is a Rose in Spanish Harlem'). Inigo Jones gives a fine solo in That yonge child, though he and harpist Emma Granger manage to make the combination of boys voice and harp sound quite disturbing. Balulalow sees Tom Warner providing a lovely solo, with a melodic felicity in the choir. As dew in Aprille has a brilliant sound, with very forward timbre (plus a hint that the choristers might be pushing a little too hard). In This little Babe they spit the words out very intently, creating an intense moment. Granger comes to the fore in the harp solo Interlude. In freezing winter night with soloists Hugh Finnerty and Inigo Jones sees a complex interweaving of parts with a very forward timbre. You are quite aware of individual voices in the different vocal groups, but the result is very evocative. Spring Carol has solos from Inigo Jones and Felix Ross, it is short and rather delightful. Deo Gracias opens with a fine swagger, rhythmically vivid with the words spit out. And the Recession has the choir receding still singin with a flexibly firm line. This performance does not have the complete perfection that you might get from women's voices; for all Britten's skill you are aware that some moments do stretch the boys. But the gains are enormous, in the intense vitality that they bring to the work as well as the wonderfully evocative timbre of boy's voices.

Rejoice in the Lamb was written for St. Matthew's Church, Northampton for the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the church in 1943. It was commissioned by the Revd Walter Hussey (who, as Dean of Chichester, would be later responsible for commissioning artists such as Marc Chagall). This performance is accompanied on the organ by Steven Grahl. A lovely, mysterious opening develops into infectiously jazzy rhythms and great words, though I did wonder whether some of the details in the slower passages might be a little smudged. Inigo Jones is vibrant and sweet in the delightful solo For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey. Rory McCleery provides a soft-grained and characterful counter-tenor solo, with Nick Pritchard singing with a great sense of line, sweet tone but poor diction in the tenor solo. For I am under the same accusation sees beautiful choral tone combined with clarity and fine words. James Geidt proves the firm toned baritone solo.

The Festival Te Deum was composed for the centenary festival of St. Mark's Church Swindon and premiered in 1944. The choral part makes very effective use of choral unisons, this is very much superior gebrauchsmusik. But there are some lovely moments with a treble solo from Hugh Finnerty combining sweetness with a sense of line. The Venite exultemus and Jubilate Deo were both written in 1961 for St George's Chapel Windsor as part of a projected complete set of canticles, neither was published in Britten's lifetime. Venite exultemus is slow and rather more subtle and thoughtful, a rather spiky version of Anglican chant. Whilst Jubilate Deo is perky, with a lot of choral unison imaginatively handled. Steven Grahl provides the organ accompaniment for the Te Deum and Jubilate Deo, with Benjamin Bloor on the Venite exultemus.

Hymn to the Virgin was written in 1930 when Britten was still at school, it remains a beautiful and astonishing work. Here given a finely shaped performance with a vibrant sense of line and a careful interaction between chorus and semi-chorus.

The Missa Brevis was written in 1959 for George Malcolm and the boys of Westminster Cathedral. Like the trebles at Westminster, those of New College, Oxford have a very forward, focussed continental tone which makes their recording of this work very apt. The organ accompaniment is provided by Steven Grahl.

After a vibrantly brilliant Kyrie we get a Gloria which combines crisply enunciated words with lively rhythm. The Sanctus is amazingly vibrant, with a lovely clear pair of solos from Jonty Ward and Inigo Jones in the Benedictus. The Agnus Dei is plangently expressive and altogether rather dark.

The Hymn of St Columba  was written in 1962 to mark the 1400th anniversary of Columba's mission tom Iona. The interesting organ part is played by Steven Grahl. Britten uses homophony and unison in the choir to interesting effect. This is a vibrant performance of a rather sober piece.

Britten wrote AMDG setting poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1939 though the work was never released in his lifetime (Britten in fact withdrew it) and some editorial work was needed to publish it. Prayer I his highly intense and harmonically chromatic, you sense it pushing the choir but they give a strong performance. Prayer II is calmer but not less chromatic, sometimes jarringly so, Britten was certainly pushing the choral language here in a way which the works written in the 1940's did not.

Finally Antiphon written in 1956 for the  centenary of St. Michael's Church, Tenbury. In it Britten pits lively music for the whole choir with slower contemplative sections for the men and for three trebles (Inigo Jones, Christopher Beswich and Hugh Finnerty). The resulting interaction is, at times, almost John Tavener-like.

In his article in the CD booklet Edward Higginbottom says that 'By using boy's voices throughout this recording ... we remain true to Britten's expectations of performances of his sacred music within the musical and cultural milieu familiar to him' This gives the set a fascinating insight into Britten's sound world, especially in the works which are now more commonly performed by mixed voice choirs. But over and above this, it is the quality of the performances from choir of New College, Oxford, which make the disc worth coming back to. The set is an amazing achievement for a choir of boys and young men, a fitting celebration of Britten's choral writing.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Hymn to St Cecilia [11.02]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - A Wedding Anthem [8.43]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Whoso dwelleth [4.03]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Te Deum in C [7.65]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Jubilate in E flat [2.54]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Hymn to St Peter [5.16]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - A Ceremony of Carols [22.46]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Rejoice in the Lamb [17.35]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Festival Te Deum [6.02]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Venite exultemus [4.39]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Jubilate Deo in C [2.38]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - A Hymn to the Virgin [3.16]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Missa Brevis in D [9.21]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - A Hymn to St Columba [2.09]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Prayer I (AMDG) [2.05]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Prayer II (AMDG) [3.52]
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Antiphon [6.04]
Choir of New College Oxford
Steven Grahl (organ)
Lwarence Thain (organ)
Benjamin Bloor (organ)
Emma Granger (harp)
Inigo Jones (treble)
Jonty Ward (treble)
Tom Warner (treble)
Hugh Finnerty (treble)
Felix Ross (treble)
Dominic Baum (treble)
Chirstopher Beswick (treble)
Daniel Laking(alto)
Rory McCleery (alto)
Guy Cutting (tenor)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Duncan Saunderson (bass)
James Geidt (bass)
Edward Higginbottom (director)
Recorded in the Chapel of New College, Oxford 18-20 July 2011, 16-20 April and 17 November 2013
NOVUM NCR 1386 2 CD's [62.42, 57.43]

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