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BEST OF BRITISH
on 29 June 2004
This disc can be recommended enthusiastically to all admirers of Britten's work and also to newcomers. His genius and originality often show up most clearly when he writes for small forces. There are 33 items in total here, twelve in the Ceremony of Carols itself and twelve more songs in the collection entitled 'Friday afternoons' because that was when they were first rehearsed by his brother's pupils. Three others form a single group of settings of the highly individual and atmospheric Walter de la Mare, and the remaining six are isolated compositions from various stages of Britten's life, the Shakespeare number being accurately 'Fancie' and not 'Francie'. The Ceremony itself is set for trebles with a virtuosic harp accompaniment despatched with enormous panache by Skaila Kanga. The other items are occasionally unaccompanied a capella but mainly with a simple but resourceful piano accompaniment provided by a specialist in such work Alexander Wells, and the 1994 direction is from Ronald Corp, founder of the London Children's Choir.
Britten had exquisite literary taste. His knowledge of the byways of English poetry would have shamed many a professor of literature. His instinct for what poetry goes to music and what does not was unerring and to the best of my knowledge he never commits the deadly sin of trying to set Housman, a source of great distress to that poet and no wonder. There is no particularly strong Christmas theme in the Ceremony, although A Wealden Trio for two sopranos and alto is specifically 'a Christmas song'. So far as I can detect, all the vocal parts are such as amateurs, in many cases children, can handle, the only thing calling for a professional being the harp part in the Ceremony. What one needs to sense is that the performers understand the music with the marrow of their bones. That understanding is largely communicated by the choirmaster, and Ronald Corp's cv as outlined here confirms what my ears tell me anyway, namely that this kind of music is his line of country. One thing I find particularly pleasant is that Britten does not patronise children in his music for them, just as Bach did not.
Once again I feel we are indebted to Naxos for a production like this. Presumably it required only a low budget, and it is a heartening confirmation of my own conviction that financial restrictions are fully compatible with high quality and with some sense of adventure and discovery rather than yet more complete sets of Beethoven and Brahms. This collection dates from a time when people still made their own music as best they could without technical support, and it is encouraging to find how strong the tradition remains. Words are not provided, but the diction and recording are clear enough for one to get a very fair idea of each song even at first hearing. The leaflet provides information regarding the performers, and the short commentary on the music by Ates Orga is notably sensitive and knowledgeable. Obviously the ideal thing would be to organise one's own performances of this music. Pending that unlikely event in my own case I am more than happy to have it done so well for me.