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Britten: The Sacred Choral Music / Higginbottom, Choir Of New College Oxford

Britten / Choir Of New College Oxford
Release Date: 02/26/2013 
Label:  Novum   Catalog #: 1386   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Guy CuttingDuncan SaundersonLawrence ThainNick Pritchard,   ... 
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 0 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Benjamin Britten’s best (and consequently best-known) choral works have received generous attention from choirs and record companies—much of it resulting in a very high standard of performance and sound, giving listeners multiple first-rate choices and making it difficult to single out any one version of a particular work. Compilations like this one, however, which are popping up everywhere for the Britten centennial, rarely contain uniformly first-rate material or performances; there are just too many variables. And even if the performances are excellent, in the interest of “completeness” producers often can’t resist including some of a composer’s less-inspired or just plain inferior works. All of these things apply to some degree here. Read more

Speaking of “completeness”, such a claim for any set of recordings is rarely true; there’s almost always something left out. So the producers of this set wisely chose to restrict the collection to a somewhat loosely defined category: “all the music of Benjamin Britten that might reasonably be sung within the liturgy of the Christian Church.” Yes, the title on the cover, “The Sacred Choral Music”, is not exactly accurate—there is no A Boy Was Born, for instance—but the concept, explained by conductor Edward Higginbottom in the excellent liner notes, makes packaging and programming sense. And, with one big exception, the performances, from sessions in 2011 and 2012, are very good to excellent; the sound, from the New College chapel, has a pleasingly bright ambience and fine balances between choir and organ and within the choir in a cappella pieces.

Beginning with a fine Hymn to St. Cecilia (still one of the more bizarre texts in the choral repertoire) the program marches through A Wedding Anthem, a chorus from the “radio cantata” The Company of Heaven, Te Deum in C, Jubilate Deo in E-flat and Hymn to St. Peter. Perhaps the choir has become too familiar with A Ceremony of Carols, which it must have sung a million times since the early 1960s; otherwise, what can explain the performance’s overly cool confidence, its pervasive laid-back, dare I say “indifferent” character? (I can’t remember a more dull rendition of “Deo Gracias”.)

Nevertheless, a totally redeeming Rejoice in the Lamb opens Disc 2—one of the best recorded performances, spirited, articulate, rhythmically sharp and scintillating, with first-rate soloists and praiseworthy organ from Steven Grahl. (The only slightly annoying thing is someone’s decision to assign the work only three tracks on the CD—an unnecessary inconvenience for listeners.) The rest of the program is of the same quality, highlighted by the Hymn to the Virgin and Missa brevis in D (again, one of the strangest yet most affecting settings ever—a successful effort to shake up the old Anglican church music establishment).

On the less-inspired, inferior front, the program includes the so-so Jubilate Deo in E-flat (1934), Venite exultemus (1961), the very “church-y” psalm setting from The Company of Heaven, and two Prayers from A.M.D.G., settings of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins that were (rightly) withdrawn by the composer and that sound more like experimental efforts than finished works. Devoted and sincere as the performances are, there’s a reason why these are not considered among Britten’s more illustrious creations. However, for context and comparison, it’s probably good to have them here. And their inclusion takes nothing away from the rest of this very solid collection.

It shouldn’t go without mention that the notes, by director Higginbottom, Christopher Chowrimootoo, and countertenor and former New College choir member James Bowman, are exceptionally thoughtful and informative, enhanced by the inclusion of full texts and original performance and dedication details for each of the 17 selections. For some listeners, the thought of the overly bright, uncertain, “unfinished” sound of boy trebles may be cause for hesitation in investigating this set; but there’s none of that here. The Choir of New College Oxford trebles are notably free of those all-too-familiar qualities, their tone warmer, their sound more centered and true, and consequently more able to blend with the adult male voices. As for your reservations about this lackluster Ceremony of Carols, they can be remedied by either of two other versions: the women’s voices of The Sixteen (Coro) or, in a fine rendition with boy trebles, the Westminster Cathedral Choir (Hyperion). A fine set; not perfect, but close enough.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1. Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Guy Cutting (), Duncan Saunderson ()
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Oxford New College Choir
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 11 Minutes 1 Secs. 
2. Wedding Anthem, Op. 46 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Lawrence Thain (Organ), Nick Pritchard ()
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1949; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 8 Minutes 43 Secs. 
3. The Company of Heaven: Whoso dwelleth by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1937 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 4 Minutes 3 Secs. 
4. Te Deum, for trumpet, chorus & organ in C major by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Lawrence Thain (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1934; United Kingdom 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 7 Minutes 56 Secs. 
5. Jubilate Deo in E flat major by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 2 Minutes 53 Secs. 
6. Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Lawrence Thain (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1955; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 5 Minutes 15 Secs. 
7. A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Emma Grainger (Harp)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 20 Minutes 40 Secs. 
8. Rejoice in the Lamb, festival cantata for trumpet, ATB soloists, chorus & organ, Op. 30 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  James Geidt (), Nick Pritchard (), Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1943; United Kingdom 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 17 Minutes 34 Secs. 
9. Festival Te Deum, for trumpet, chorus & organ, Op. 32 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1944; United Kingdom 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 6 Minutes 1 Secs. 
10. Venite exultemus Domino by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Benjamin Bloor (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 4 Minutes 39 Secs. 
11. Jubilate Deo in C major by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 2 Minutes 37 Secs. 
12. Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930/1934; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 3 Minutes 15 Secs. 
13. Missa Brevis in D major, Op. 63 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 8 Minutes 39 Secs. 
14. Hymn of St. Columba (Regis regum rectissimi), for chorus & organ by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1962; United Kingdom 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 2 Minutes 8 Secs. 
15. A.M.D.G.: Prayer 1 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1937 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 2 Minutes 5 Secs. 
16. A.M.D.G.: Prayer 2 by Benjamin Britten
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: Modern 
Written: 1937 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 3 Minutes 51 Secs. 
17. Antiphon, Op. 56b by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Steven Grahl (Organ)
Conductor:  Edward Higginbottom
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; England 
Venue:  Chapel of New College Oxford 
Length: 6 Minutes 3 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op. 27: Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27
A Wedding Anthem, Op. 46
The Company of Heaven: Part III: Whoso Dwelleth Under the Defence of the Most High
Te Deum in C major
Jubilate Deo in E flat major
Hymn to St. Peter, Op. 56a
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Procession
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Wolcum yole!
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: There is no rose
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: That yonge child
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Balulalow
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: As dew in Aprille
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: This little Babe
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Interlude
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: In freezing winter night
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Spring Carol
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Deo Gracias!
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Recession
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30: Rejoice in God, o ye Tongues
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30: For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30: For I am under the same accusation
Festival Te Deum, Op. 32
Venite exultemus Domino
Jubilate Deo
A Hymn to the Virgin
Missa brevis, Op. 63: Kyrie
Missa brevis, Op. 63: Gloria
Missa brevis, Op. 63: Sanctus - Benedictus
Missa brevis, Op. 63: Agnus Dei
A Hymn of St. Columba
A.M.D.G.: No. 1. Prayer I
A.M.D.G.: No. 4. Prayer II
Antiphon, Op. 56b

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