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An excellent tribute to Britten,
This review is from: Britten: Saint Nicolas; Hymn to St. Cecilia; Rejoice in the Lamb (Audio CD)
King's College Choir's contribution to the Britten centenary is an attractive programme of three masterpieces from the 1940s. All three pieces are well represented in the catalogue already, and if these performances don't break new ground then at least they maintain the standard of the classic performances on record.
Saint Nicolas is the most substantial piece in terms of length, and the main selling point of the disc (I should say discs, as the package includes two - a CD and an SACD, containing the same music). The reverberant acoustic of King's College Chapel gives the performance an inherent advantage over others in its conveyance of the sense of occasion, and any performance of Saint Nicolas, like the arguably better known Noye's Fludde, should be an occasion, and ideally a community project. That is the case here, with the girls of Sawston Village College Choir providing the gallery chorus, and CUMS Chorus drafted in to boost numbers for the congregational carols (fine, though I'd have preferred the sound of a real audience).
Horses for courses, but I slightly favour King's over the superb Trinity College recording that came out a year ago, largely because the boys' voices in the choir are a particularly good fit for a piece that, after all, was originally written for children to sing. Britten famously favoured the full-throated 'continental' sound of Westminster Cathedral Choir over the traditional Anglican hoot, and you might fear the trebles of King's would be too well mannered for a piece like this, but in fact the choir's performance is amiably rugged, unfailingly musical but not polished to the point of blandness. I've rarely heard 'The Birth of Nicolas' executed with such evident joy. Nicolas's revival of the Pickled Boys is another highlight (the boys don't sound very pickled, but they do at least make a beautiful noise). As Nicolas, Peter Pears is a hard act to follow. It's not an iconic role like Grimes, say, but it was written expressly for Pears' voice, and so bears its imprint. Andrew Kennedy is a fine soloist, perhaps at his best in the dramatic sections like 'Nicolas from Prison'. (I marginally prefer Allan Clayton with Trinity - his tone is brighter, his voice lighter, his pitching perhaps a little nearer the note, and Kennedy is occasionally inclined to moo; but what you lose with one soloist you gain with another.)
It's not really fair to describe the other two pieces, the Hymn to St Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb, as fillers. They may be comparatively brief, but they are no less great. The recordings of these pieces I return to most often are King's recordings of yesteryear - the Hymn to St Cecilia under Willcocks, and Rejoice in the Lamb (with added percussion, sanctioned by Britten) under Ledger, both available on this release - and if these new recordings do not surpass those then they are at least perfectly enjoyable additions to the discography, capturing the spirit of each piece. There are some tuning issues with the upper voices in parts of the Hymn to St Cecilia, particularly on the return to E major tonality towards the end of the first section, but that is followed by an 'I cannot grow' of such pace and lightness that you forgive everything. It's a sign of a performance that fulfils the composer's intentions that it leaves you marvelling, as this one did, at the genius of the music. Rejoice in the Lamb receives a performance of charm and beauty, though I would have liked the opening and the Hallelujah sections more hushed.
All in all, a self-recommending issue. Two caveats: the Hymn to St Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb are presented as single tracks on the CD, not subdivided by sections as is more common, which will bother some people; and there is an informative booklet essay by Mervyn Cooke that is printed as minuscule text. The production values of the new King's in-house record label are generally excellent, but if your sight is defective you will need to get out the magnifying glass.