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on 8 November 2013
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.
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on 26 May 2014
I listened, then immediately ordered this.
We all remember moving performances of the past but this is definitive.
Superbly perfomed by singers and instrumentalists in a sympathetic acoustic.
The audi production is top quality.
Attractively packed as in two disc versions, one is standard stereo and the other SACD high density multichannels for audiophiles with this player; at a good price for the bundle.
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on 12 November 2014
There are some excellent recordings of this piece in the catalogue. However, usually one either gets a sound from the choir which is a little too rough and ready (as in Britten's own recording) or which goes too far the other way, and sounds rather too well mannered (as in the otherwise wonderful Trinity/Layton). This recording manages to absolutely nail the correct balance between these two elements, and combined with the stunningly captured King's acoustic, makes for the the most compelling account of this work available.

Taking centre stage, the choir deliver on all levels, with excellent annunciation and a warm and muscular sound. Not at all too polite, when it needs to be the sound has an attractive rough-edged quality which, after all, is what Britten was after. The Britten Sinfonia make a detailed and pointed contribution, as only they can, with superb playing from both the principal violin and cello.

Andrew Kennedy is an inspired choice for Nicolas. As a Cardiff Lieder Singer of the World, he has a gift for expressing the text in new and unexpected ways and certainly doesn't disappoint here. He is possibly the biggest voice (with the exception of Langridge) to have tackled this role, and offers an ardent and involving interpretation. Repeated listening will reveal a host of delightful details.

Tying this all together is the firm hand of Stephen Cleobury, whose choices of tempo are faithful to the score and well judged. The fugue in the fourth movement has its pompous tread and the hymns proceed in a stately fashion. The slower tempo of the final verse of God Moves in a Mysterious way is a rather moving touch. On the subject of the hymns, King's managed to secure a full congregation (in the form of the Cambridge Music Society Chorus) to join them at these points, lending an impressive depth to the sound which is not replicated anywhere else on disk.

The recorded sound is simply superb. In fact this is possibly the best I have heard the famous King's acoustic on disk. The balance is truthful, and there is warmth and detail also. As if this were not enough, the accompanying fillers are both excellent. The Rejoice in the Lamb finds the choir in powerful form - more full throated than the classic EMI recording. The soloists all make distinguished contributions.

All in all, a disk which I will be revisiting very soon. Highly recommended.
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on 24 October 2014
I have every recording of this lovely work. Above them all stands Matthew Best's Hyperion recording. There, one finds a palpable sense of occasion: just listen to the two great congregational hymns; they bring power and atmosphere. And there's no better Nicolas than the late Rolfe Johson. Unlike Kennedy for King's, who is strained and tired at the end - it IS a taxing part - Rolfe Johnson just has a better trained voice. King's may as well have dispensed with the additions of the local choirs: the recording is so close that one is not aware of them at all, unlike the Hyperion. One of the most magical moments in my vast collection of music is the way 'God Moves in a Mysterious Way', the closing hymn, starts so quietly, mysteriously!, and ends in a great climax. The King's CD doesn't even 'get' this. I have long thought that KCC and Cleobury should part: decades is too long, and it's time to move that once-great choir onto another level. In fact, this recording isn't as good as KCC's version with Willcocks and Robert Tear.
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on 7 November 2015
A great recording and just what I needed for my concert performance rehearsals.
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on 27 October 2013
Britten isn't my favourite composer. I bought this recording because I am learning the St Nicolas Mass for a performance for St Nicolas' day. This is a good performance, beautifully sung, I'm sure Britten fans would rate it higher
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