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Britten: Saint Nicolas, Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb - Cleobury

Britten: Saint Nicolas, Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb - Cleobury

Kings College  KGS003

Stereo/Multichannel Dual Layer

Classical - Vocal


Britten: Saint Nicolas, Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb

Andrew Kennedy, tenor
The Choir of Kings College, Cambridge
Britten Sinfonia
Stephen Cleobury

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Review by John Miller - November 11, 2013

The relatively new label from The Choir of King's College, Cambridge (UK) presents us with its celebration of Benjamin Britten's 100th Anniversary of his birth. Of their label's three issues (at the time of writing), the first was an RBCD, the second and present albums SA-CDs. Curiously the SA-CDs come not as single disc hybrids but as a double disc package, comprising an RBCD disc and an SA-CD carrying stereo and multichannel tracks.

The King's College male voice Choir has had a long and illustrious recording history with Decca and EMI. Steven Cleobury, Director of Music for over 30 years, has welcomed the College's initiation of their choir's own label as a way of opening up of programming. On the present disc are three of Britten's most popular choral works, with the three-quarters of an hour cantata Saint Nicolas (Op. 42, 1948) at centre-stage, partnered by the Hymn to St Cecilia (Op.27, 1942) and Rejoice in the Lamb (Op. 30). These works together illustrate Britten's ability to take quite unconventional texts and draw extraordinary and very dramatic music from them - often a characteristic of his version of sacred music.

St Nicolas, bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the Third Century was a very well-known figure of Early Christianity, and he is regarded by some as a possible originator of the much later Christmas character Santa Claus. Very little is known about him historically, but there are many stories and legends, including his miracle-making and dutiful parochial care for his congregations. Britten was attracted by the bishop's character; he was alleged to be a pacifist, had special care for sailors and navigators, was generous towards the poor and loved small children - all traits of great importance to the composer. A highly acclaimed libretto was concocted from fact and fiction by Britten's friend Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Cleobury's recording of Saint Nicolas closely follows the staging and instrumentation of the première of the work at the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Britten called for a tenor soloist (here Andrew Kennedy), chorus of men and boys (King’s College Choir), gallery chorus of girls (Sawston Village College Choir), orchestra (Britten Sinfonia) and congregation of mixed voices (Cambridge University Music Society). Kennedy, a former student of the College, rises to the Centennial spirit with a deftly-crafted St Nicolas, fully aware of all the implications of the text and clearly enunciated, even in the glorious spaces of King Henry IV's profusely decorated Chapel. Choral contributions are all first-rank in their gusto and precision, including those deemed as semi-professionals. Britten includes two hymns which are sung by the "Congregation" together with the other choirs; these interludes are not often recorded.

Underlined by bass drum and tympani and punctuated by cymbals, the first hymn, 'Old Hundredth' ("All People That on Earth do Dwell") in particular excited the acoustics of the Chapel most grandly and impressively. The 1968 Harrison organ also makes its magisterial presence here (and very clearly elsewhere in the Cantata). Britten was not above inserting some unexpected minor chords in these almost universally known hymn tunes, no doubt with tongue in cheek, as his personal God was not of the Establishment's type.

Critics in Britten's time were often averse to Britten's brilliant mêlée of styles in St Nicolas, being dismayed that it was music that children could engage with and sing easily, while also providing sophisticated religious and moral messages. Michael Kennedy, Britten's biographer commented ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’ I heartily agree with his advice. This performance reveals a genuine and heartfelt response to a text which is aimed at connecting with young people. It stands shoulder to shoulder with others, including Britten's own (mostly with amateurs, and the voice of Peter Pears something of a matter of taste), together with Matthew Best's and Steven Layton's, both for Hyperion (RBCD).

As patron of Music and musicians, St Cecilia has received many hymns, particularly from Purcell, whose work was greatly admired by Britten. His Hymn to her (Op. 27, 1941-2) springs from personal and pointed poetry from his great friend W.H.Auden. Returning from the US to Britain, his MS was confiscated by the New York customs, and he had to recompose the work from memory on the cruise to Liverpool. Auden gave him clear advice - ‘O wear your tribulation like a rose’, an urge to celebrate his lost innocence, clearly taken up by the composer in his sparkling and joyous setting.

Britten’s construction is incredibly intricate at times, the treble parts moving at a much greater speed than the other voices, challenging for the boys of the King's College Choir, but one which, taking into consideration the great acoustic, is well negotiated. The many scored parts create a rhythmically complex framework, but magically the resultant sounds are of airy simplicity and beautiful restraint, with softer portions sounding quite radiant.

Finally comes the remarkable 'Rejoice in the Lamb'. This Festival Cantata was written for the 50th anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew's Church in Northampton. Its text is excerpted from a poem entitled "Jubilate Agno", by Christopher Smart (1722-71). This eighteenth century poet was in an insane asylum as a religious maniac when he wrote it. There is a delightful sense of madness in the poem, but the intensively religious character of the work is its most striking character. Scored for male choir, organ, percussion, and four soloists, the words seem intractable as music, but Britten has amazing imagination. Smart, for example, describes the special love of God which the prison Cat evidences to him, as also does its nemesis mouse. Their unique worship of God provides a focal point in the poem and the music. Thus the solo of Britten's "small boy" is about "my cat Jeoffry". The text is very imaginative and charming. The cat's antagonist, a mouse, challenges and threatens him for taking a female mouse. The piece continues with nonsense rhymes of instruments and concludes with a repetition of the Purcellian Hallelujah fugue from near the opening. Trebles and also soloists sound small enough and mimic their characters nicely, and the choir's tenor and baritone soloists provide staunch and well-focussed contributions in Smart's relating how cruelly his supposedly God-fearing inmates mocked him.

King's College Chapel is well known for providing acoustic space for the Chapel Choir in their recordings, but even more so in their world wide radio broadcasts, especially at the Christmas relays of the Chapel's Christmas Carol services. A system of microphones for recording purposes has been installed in the Chapel, which suspends an array of carefully positioned microphones from the huge fan vault ceiling, without drilling into the stone. It is designed to be able to record to the best quality and feeds equipment in a small adjacent studio, using extremely thin cables which are virtually invisible seen against the ornamented stone. There is no indication in the booklet about whether this system was used or augmented by other equipment. The recording was made in 96/24 pcm, with 5.1 multichannel. In the case of this famous acoustic, described as "honeyed" by some technicians, and regarded as one of the greatest ecclesiastical acoustics in the world, the presentation of the bass range is of significant psychoacoustic importance.

In 5.1 mode and quite high volume setting, I was most impressed with the depth and focus of this recording. It is underpinned with deep, resonant organ pedals, bass drum, tympani and bass strings. Many previous recordings from this venue have been criticised for blurring of detail by its seconds-long reverberation. On this disc I found the Britten Sinfonia vividly placed across the wide stage, and the College Choir were also very present in the mix. Soloists were well-placed, and Andrew Kennedy's solos were very well-articulated and easily followed in the booklet texts. Quiet sections did not recede, and at climaxes the acoustic opened up to a thrilling level, again with the firm bass helping to keep a reasonably focussed sonic image of this great building and its responses. Having been in the glorious building myself, I felt that I once more had a seat in King Henry's private chapel. In stereo, however, this was not so realistic, without the "3d" bass which added so much in multichannel imaging of the building.

Production values are high: the 2 disk set is stored in a standard double-pack with a card sleeve. Helpful notes on the history of the choir and account of Britten's many associations with the Choir and College in Cambridge accompany plenty of information about the music. All this, except for the English texts, was translated into French and German by translators from the College, showing that the use of local talent by this new label goes deep!

This programme celebrates Britten's passionate intent to write music which was not just performable by amateurs but also had immediate attraction for audiences. I soon put down my notebook and scores, to just listen intently with delight, and indulged myself as if on a visit to King's College Chapel. If you are not put off by boy trebles and altos, do please have a listen to this most enjoyable disc.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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