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Britten: A Ceremony Of Carols / Layton, Trinity College Choir Cambridge

Britten / Trinity College Choir / Layton
Release Date: 10/09/2012 
Label:  Hyperion   Catalog #: 67946  
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Sally PryceKatherine WatsonZoë BrownAllan Clayton
Conductor:  Stephen Layton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London SinfoniaHolst SingersCambridge Trinity College Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols , Op. 28. Saint Nicholas , Op. 42 Stephen Layton, cond; Sally Pryce (hp); Alan Clayton (ten); Ch of Trinity College Cambridge; Holst Singers; Boys of Temple Church; City of London Snf HYPERION CDA67946 (73:39 Text and Translation)

Britten’s Ceremony has been recorded many times, and almost as often by a Read more four-part mixed choir as by the original treble chorus. Initially, Britten had a female chorus in mind and one was used when the original set of seven was first performed. With the exception of the Hymn to the Virgin , it is by far Britten’s most-recorded choral piece. The cantata, Saint Nicholas , on the other hand, is not often heard or recorded. For both, Britten’s own recordings are still in print. It is good, then, to have an “original” version of the Ceremony available (here in its later expanded revision). For this recording, which coincides with this year’s Britten centenary, Stephen Layton uses the upper voices of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, with incidental solos therefrom, nicely sung by Zoë Brown and Katherine Watson. As one might expect, the choir produces a bold sound, at times rather grainy, but there is no doubt about its commitment to the text, which is admirably clear. Sally Price plays the harp part with sensitivity and subtlety.

The association of Nicolas of Myra with Christmas is a late invention and Britten makes no nod in that direction. Indeed, its first performance was on June 5, 1948, at the first concert of the first Aldeburgh Festival, but, at Britten’s request, its official first performance was declared to be a month and a half later in celebration of the centenary of the school that had commissioned it, for whom St. Nicolas is one of its patron saints. It requires “any numerically big chorus,” part of which is at the back of the performing space, amateur string players “preferably led by a professional quintet,” a good percussionist, an organist, a piano duo, a highly skilled tenor, a treble, and an audience. My own experience of performing this piece has shown me that it makes a good effect. And yet …

For all the noise and tumult, for all the quite wonderful things the tenor gets to do, and for all its studied naïveté, it never quite gets off the ground in the way Britten’s later and similar piece, Noyes Fludde (1957), bursts with energy. I think this is in part due to the unrelenting earnestness of Eric Crozier’s text, but it is in no little part due, as well, to the fact that, unlike in the Fludde , the story is told, not shown, and Britten had by then amply demonstrated that the showing of stories was his real strength as a composer. Britten’s notions of what an amateur chorus could manage are probably right, but its sections, and, oddly for Britten, their accompaniments, are, frankly, uninteresting. The real glory of this piece lies in the imaginative writing and accompaniments for the tenor soloist. Alan Clayton does an admirable job as the narrating Nicolas, although I wish his opening statement had a bit more juice in it.

Stephen Layton has worked hard to infuse this cantata with commitment and purpose and to give it a sense of direction. He does, however, tend to push his tempos and this occasionally presses Clayton. But he also comes the closest I have ever heard to making a success of the worst fugue Britten ever wrote. The three choirs are clear and understandable. I was pleased, too, to hear the forthright treble of Luke McWatters. There are six other recordings of the piece available, including Britten’s own with Peter Pears and David Hemmings, but I would keep this one before all of them.

FANFARE: Alan Swanson
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Works on This Recording

A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Sally Pryce (Harp), Katherine Watson (Soprano), Zoë Brown (Soprano)
Conductor:  Stephen Layton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London Sinfonia,  Holst Singers,  Cambridge Trinity College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Allan Clayton (Tenor)
Conductor:  Stephen Layton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of London Sinfonia,  Holst Singers,  Cambridge Trinity College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; England 

Featured Sound Samples

A Ceremony of Carols: No 2: Wolcum Yole!
Saint Nicolas: IV. He journeys to Palestine

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