BRITTEN A Ceremony of Carols. Saint Nicolas
As the Britten centenary looms into view, it is good to be able to offer an enthusiastic welcome to this sparkling disc of two of his 1940s ‘classic’ scores. A Ceremony of Carols (recorded in 2007, early in Stephen Layton’s directorship at Trinity College) is sung here by the evenly blended upper voices of his chapel choir. Layton’s flowing speeds underline the dramatic sequence of the carols (which are so often cherry-picked and shoehorned into miscellaneous programmes). All the solo performances are impeccably shaped and harpist Sally Pryce makes light work of the fiendish accompaniments.
The choral singing is just as enjoyable in the main work on the disc, the cantata Saint Nicolas (1947-48), whose introduction flows seamlessly from the end of the Ceremony’s Recession. Although his overall timing is some four minutes slower than Steuart Bedford (in the same venue – All Hallows, Gospel Oak), the music doesn’t drag. Layton even makes a convincing case for the score’s occasional clumsy moments (such as the transition from the end of the fugal section at ‘Serve the Faith’).
Allan Clayton makes the role of Nicolas entirely his own. What a glorious voice! I was reminded of the clarity of Wilfred Brown. Not a hint, too, of any Pears-isms, although I missed the anguished astringency that Philip Langridge (on Naxos) brought, for example, to the third movement, in which Nicolas devotes himself to God.
The hearty sailors, Pickled Boys and St Trinian’s-like piano duettists are all on top form. This is a beautiful and deeply affecting recording.