Britten: A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols & Saint Nicolas

Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)


2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion starts celebrating early with this disc of two of the composer’s most popular choral works, both with a Christmas relevance.

The cantata Saint Nicolas tells the story of the original ‘Santa Claus’, a fourth-century saint whose acts—revitalizing three boys who had been pickled by an unscrupulous landlord being among the more dramatic—led to his canonization as patron saint of children and sailors. Britten’s lively setting is distinctly operatic, full of incident and colour—with the story brought ‘home’ through the use of congregational hymns. The part of Nicolas (here sung magnificently by Allan Clayton, already acclaimed as the heir to Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson) is one of Britten’s great heroic tenor roles.

A Ceremony of Carols is a setting for treble voices and harp of some of the medieval texts which Britten loved so much, and is heard every Christmas in cathedrals, churches and concert halls throughout the land. This fresh, sparkling performance completes a thoroughly festive release.

Behind The Cover

Benjamin Britten's relationship to the English church—indeed, to religion itself—may have been ambivalent, but throughout his life he continued to set religious texts and compose religious music, some of which is intended for liturgical use, and all of which demonstrates a profound respect for the sacred.

It's perhaps slightly stretching a point to describe 'Saint Nicolas' as a Christmas work (although Nicolas himself, a historical figure and fourth-century saint now best known as the patron saint of children, is the original 'Santa Claus'), but 'A Ceremony of Carols' has long been inseparable from the season. Written on board ship on Britten’s return to England in 1942 and first performed in December that year, the 'Ceremony' has always been one of this composer's most popular works, its striking blend of Old English poetry and 'brittle' harp accompaniment creating an ancient, austere beauty, a beauty perfectly captured in this account by the sopranos and altos of The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge.

The album cover art is a detail of the magnificent Britten memorial window in Aldeburgh Parish Church (where both Britten and Peter Pears are buried) by John Piper. Piper (1903–1992) was a long-time friend and collaborator of Britten, responsible for the set and costume designs of many of Britten's works for the stage, and his work has been compared to Britten's as being 'recognisably modern without being aggressively modernist'. That description is brilliantly apt, and, quite apart from the personal connections between both men, the juxtaposition of their works on our Britten album feels absolutely right.

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