Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, Saint Nicolas
2013 saw the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion celebrated 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.
David Mellor’s Christmas Album of the Year
‘As the Britten centenary looms into view, it is good to be able to offer an enthusiastic welcome to this sparkling release of two of his 1940s ‘classic’ scores … Allan Clayton makes the role of Nicolas entirely his own. What a glorious voice! … 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’ (Gramophone)’An ideal coupling … Layton’s sopranos and mezzos affect a purity that sounds ‘boyish’. Their intonation in the piquant harmonies of Wolcum Yole impresses … In the cantata, Allan Clayton’s Nicolas is more youthful-sounding than his predecessors, but Layton captures the mystery-play-like drama of the saint’s life story’ (The Sunday Times)’Ceremony of Carols is pretty much unalloyed inspiration and delight … Brilliantly accompanied by Sally Pryce, who delivers a spellbinding performance of the beautiful ‘Interlude’ (International Record Review)
‘Britten’s joyous cycle of nine carols is so closely associated with boys’ voices that it comes as a surprise to learn that he conceived it for female choir – and very attractive it sounds in this version with the women’s voices of Trinity College Choir, whose recessional “Alleluia” is as vividly captured as the contributions of harpist Sally Pryce. The Saint Nicolas cantata, with the City of London Sinfonia and a chorus including the boys of Temple Church Choir, receives an equally vivid performance. A Christmas disc to savour’ (Financial Times)
‘A Christmas favourite, the cantata St Nicolas, in which Stephen Layton directs an interpretation of subtlety and dramatic thrust’ (The Daily Telegraph)
‘The clear-toned adult voices of the Choir of Trinty College, Cambridge, highlight qualities in the work often missed when performed by the usual boys’ choir: the eerie beauty of ‘That yongë child’ blossoms … A welcome recording of this well-loved work’ (BBC Music Magazine)
‘There are six other recordings of the piece available, including Britten’s own with Peter Pears and David Hemmings, but I would keep this one before all of them’ (Fanfare, USA)