Stephen Layton's new disc couldn't be better timed. Not only does it steal a march on other Britten centenary releases - featuring two of the composer's most popular works - but it comes fresh after his and the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge's success at this year's Gramophone Awards. The choir's upper voices provide a wonderfully virile Ceremony of Carols, after which the full complement, joined by the Holst Singers and the Boys of the Temple Church Choir (accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia) delivers an equally fresh Saint Nicolas.
The assumption that A Ceremony of Carols was written for boys' voices galvanised when the revised version was premiered by the Morriston Boys' Choir at Wigmore Hall in 1943 (with Britten's own recording with the Copenhagen Boys' Choir coming a decade later). Since then it has been a boys' repertoire staple, with that eerie unbroken sound providing a rich parallel for its medieval poetry. Here, however, Layton returns to a female lineup, as at the original version's premiere in 1942.
Trinity's sopranos and altos (recorded at the college in 2007) have nonetheless adopted an edgy boy-like attack for their performance. Consonants are suitably clipped though, unlike their male counterparts, the effect can be a little on the prim side. There is much superb singing here, however, with every dynamic underlined. Both Zoë Brown's whispered 'That yongë child' and Sally Pryce's harp accompaniment provide more spectral tones, captured superbly by the Hyperion engineers.
No less colourful is Britten's 1948 cantata Saint Nicolas. Chorally, this is superb all round, with Layton's attention to detail reaping rich rewards from an idiomatic score. As with A Ceremony of Carols, Hyperion has arranged a crystalline sound, so that Britten's orchestral palate comes zinging to life, particularly in Nicolas's bathtub and on the sea to Palestine. Occasionally it can short change the grandeur of David Willcocks' King's performance on EMI, though Layton musters a much richer choral texture from his forces.
Where Willcocks really leads the field, however, is with his choice of Nicolas. Robert Tear has both drama and experience on his side, while Allan Clayton feels on the young side for Myra's episcopal leader. His hushed piety in 'Nicolas devotes himself to God' is wonderfully touching, though his installation as Bishop and the death lack a little of Tear's broad grandeur. After all, when Peter Pears sang in the premiere, he had already triumphed as Peter Grimes. No doubt in time Clayton will also command the full range of Britten's repertoire. That caveat aside, this is a really theatrical performance, adding another impressive notch to Layton's discography.
This is a really fine recording of two of Britten's most enjoyable pieces. I heard the Choir of Trinity sing the Ceremony of Carols in the College Chapel, which was wonderful, and the recording brings it brilliantly to life again for me. I've sung St Nicolas in Winchester with David Hill; Stephen Layton's performance is beautifully sung and brings back happy memories. An absolutely superb CD.
This is a modern and hauntingly evocative version of Britten's woefully undervalued and seminal work; my wife was extremely pleased to receive this as an early Christmas gift. The quality of harmonies and the wonderfully peaceful harp playing appeals to the reverie of the listener and makes this a must to wake up to every Christmas morning! Furthermore, its delights should not be held over until Yuletide, but rather listened to with fondness at any time of the year!