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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Sacred Choral Music
see track listing below review
Choir of New College Oxford/Edward Higginbottom
rec. July 2011, April 2012, Chapel of New College, Oxford, England
NOVUM NCR 1386 [62:42 + 57:43]

After the success of their stunning François Couperin disc Exultent superi: Motets Choisis the Choir of New College Oxford leap forward a couple of centuries for this Britten survey. Released to mark the centenary of Britten's birth in 1913 this excellent double set spans a period of over thirty years from 1930 to 1962.
 
According to the booklet notes this collection contains all of Britten’s music that Edward Higginbottom explains, “might reasonably be sung within the liturgy of the Christian Church”. I did wonder why the nineteen year old Britten’s first major choral work - the splendid choral variations A Boy Was Born, Op. 3- was not included. As Higginbottom explained to me. the score was considered but as it was conceived by Britten uniquely as a concert piece and as it employs women as well as boys it was therefore considered outside the scope of the set. “The point about our collection is that it wraps up the music that Britten composed for the Anglican liturgy, or he might have thought of as suitable for it. It doesn't include the 'sacred music' that obviously could not be sung in a liturgical context.” For those reasons the War Requiem that requires soloists and mixed choir as well as boys’ choir also fell outside the remit. The only accompaniment used in this collection is the organ and A Ceremony of Carols calls for a harp. Therefore works such as the Psalm 150, Op. 67 (1962) for two part children’s voices and instruments (using liturgical texts) also lie outside the scope. Even without the War Requiem and A Boy Was Born this anthology is generous and splendidly performed.
 
The lengthiest score, lasting almost twenty-three minutes, is A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28. Initially conceived in 1942 for a female choir this is one of Britten’s best loved choral scores heard here in its usual guise for three-part children’s voices with harp accompaniment. Comprising twelve sections this collection is drawn mainly from anonymous medieval sources together with texts from James, John and Robert Wedderburn, Robert Southwell and one attributed to William Cornish. The choir of boy trebles sing with only harp accompaniment played by Emma Granger. This can be highly affecting. I fondly recall a Christmas performance of A Ceremony of Carols in 2011 sung by the boys’ choir of Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool directed by Timothy Noon.
 
Lasting over seventeen minutes the longest work here is Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30. This festival cantata with organ was written for the 50th anniversary of St. Matthew’s church, Northampton in 1943. Britten selected an eccentric text from part of a poem called Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart. Although I have seen another recording divide the score up into as many as ten tracks here it is allocated three. The two outer movements are for chorus with the central movement, For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,has solo parts for treble, alto and tenor. 

The next substantial work the Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 takes eleven minutes to perform. Composed in 1942 this attractive canticle is designed for male choir with treble, alto, tenor and bass soloists with organ. Here Britten deploys a text written by his friend W.H. Auden. It is in three sections. 

From 1959 the Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63 was written for George Malcolm and the Westminster Cathedral. For upper voices with three treble soloists and organ, this is a Latin setting of the Ordinary of the Roman Rite.
 
A Wedding Anthem (Amo Ergo Sum), Op. 46 was written in 1949 for the wedding of Lord Harewood and Marion Stein. For this anthem, which is in effect a miniature cantata, Britten uses a text by Ronald Duncan. Soprano Joan Cross and tenor Peter Pears originally sang it with Britten conducting. Here the solo parts are taken by a treble and bass voice with a prominent organ role. 

One of Britten’s first published works, the Te Deum in C was written in 1934 for Maurice Vinden and the choir of St. Mark’s Westminster, London. Britten’s text is from the liturgy of Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. This is a demanding score for male choir accompanied by organ with a central section featuring a boy treble. 

Written in 1944 the Festival Te Deum, Op. 32 was composed for the centenary Festival of the Anglo-Catholic St. Mark’s Church, Swindon. Britten’s scoring is for male choir with treble soloist and organ.
 
Employing a George Herbert text, The Antiphon, Op. 56b from 1956 was written for the centenary of St. Michael’s College, Tenbury. The scoring is for male choir with three solo trebles and organ.
 
From 1955, the Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a was written for the Quincentenary of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich. Here Britten uses a text from the Gradual of the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. The score is for male choir with a prominent organ part.

The remaining eight scores are relatively short in duration lasting less than five minutes to perform. Short doesn’t mean lesser quality and there are many gems here to be discovered. Britten’s first sacred choral work A Hymn to the Virgin (1930) was composed when he was schoolboy at Gresham’s. There is also Whoso dwelleth (1937), Jubilate Deo in E flat (1934), Venite exult emus (1961), Jubilate Deo in C (1961), A.M.D.G (Ad majorem Dei gloriam) (1939): Prayer I and Prayer II and also the Latin setting Hymn of St Columba (1962) - his final sacred score.

The Choir of New College Oxford maintains its elevated standards with this stunning release. For anyone wishing to explore Britten’s genius for choral writing this is certainly the disc to obtain. Director Edward Higginbottom is fortunate to preside over a choir at the top of their form. The quality of their current crop of boy trebles is astonishing; as good as one is likely to hear. Many choirs supply a sound that is so spotless it verges on the sanitized. Whilst the impeccably prepared Choir of New College provides impeccable unity the individual character of many of the voices is able to shine through. This creates a quite stunning effect yet still conveys an appealing youthful vulnerability. The voices of trebles Jonty Ward and Inigo Jones - first heard on the above Couperin disc - remain in remarkable condition and can be heard to glorious effect in the Sanctus and Benedictus section of the Missa Brevis in D. Another example of Ward’s glorious voice can be heard in his solo in the Te Deum in C. There are really too many highlights to mention, however, I especially enjoyed the impressive interplay of boys’ voices in This Little Babe - a short but memorable section from A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28. This is not all about boy trebles as bass Duncan Saunderson demonstrates singing so gratifyingly and with reverence in the opening Hymn to St Cecilia. I also appreciated For I will consider my cat Jeoffry the central section of Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 for the stunning solo contributions from treble Inigo Jones, alto Rory McCleery and tenor Nick Pritchard. Top drawer accompaniments from the roster of organists Steven Grahl, Lawrence Thain and Benjamin Bloor, and from harpist Emma Granger in A Ceremony of Carols.
 
With regard to alternative recordings of the major works here there are a couple that especially stand out. Since its original release I have remained extremely fond of the highly appealing and vivacious recording of A Ceremony of Carols from the Copenhagen Boy’s Choir directed by Britten himself. Sounding fine I have this 1953 mono recording on Decca London 436 394-2 (c/w A Boy was Born, Songs fromFriday Afternoons’, Psalm 150). It’s a marvellous release that includes nine of the works from this Novum release including the substantial Rejoice in the Lamb and Hymn to St Cecilia. The Missa Brevis in D is performed by St. John’s College Choir directed by Christopher Robinson. Recorded in 1999 at St. John’s College Chapel the choir is dedicated, consistently impressively and well recorded too on Naxos 8.554791.
 
This new Novum disc has the benefit of well focused, highly satisfying sound. Three informative essays are set out in the accompanying booklet and full texts are provided together with English translations of the Latin. This generous collection is the finest available. I cannot imagine these works being sung better. 

Michael Cookson 

Britten discography & review index

Track Listing
Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27 (1942) [11:02]
A Wedding Anthem, Op. 46 (1949) [8:43]
Whoso dwelleth (1937) [4:03]
Te Deum in C (1934) [7:32]
Jubilate Deo in E flat (1934) [2:54]
Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a (1955) [5:16]
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942) [22:46]
Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943) [17:35]
Festival Te Deum, Op. 32 (1944) [6:02]
Venite exult emus (1961) [4:39]
Jubilate Deo in C (1961) [2:38]
A Hymn to the Virgin (1930) [2:09]
Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63 (1959) [9:21]
Hymn of St Columba (1962) [2:09]
A.M.D.G. (Ad majorem Dei gloriam) (1939): Prayer I [2:05] Prayer II [3:52]
Antiphon, Op. 56b (1956) [6:04]

Soloists
Trebles:
Inigo Jones (CD1, tracks 1, 10, 15, 16. CD2, tracks 2, 9, 10, 15)
Jonty Ward (CD1, tracks 2, 4. CD2, track 10)
Hugh Finnerty (CD1, track 15, CD2, tracks 4, 15)
Christopher Beswick (CD2, track 15)
Tom Warner (CD1, track 11)
Felix Ross (CD1, track 16. CD2, track 9)
Dominic Baum (CD2, track 9)
 
Tenors:
Guy Cutting (CD1, track 1
Nick Pritchard (CD1, track 2. CD2, track 2,
 
Altos:
Daniel Laking (CD1, track 1)
Rory McCleery (CD2, track 2)
 
Basses:
Duncan Saunderson (CD1, track 1)
James Geidt (CD2, track 3)
 
Harp:
Emma Granger (A Ceremony of Carols)
 
Organists:
Steven Grahl (CD1, tracks 5. CD2, tracks 1/3, 4, 6, 8/11, 12, 15)
Lawrence Thain (CD1, tracks 2, 4, 6)
Benjamin Bloor (CD 2, track 5) 


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