A Ceremony of Carols, selected from a book of medieval poems, was composed in 1942, whilst Britten was in a cargo ship, braving the U-boats whilst returning to England from the United States.
Popular though it be, I have for decades avoided "Britten’s ultimate revel in the unblemished joy of boyhood, of ‘life before the fall" [Classics Today], remembering it as somewhat insipid…
This recording – one of few by girls’ choirs – is a refreshing surprise. The singing has vitality, rhythmic security, and boasts fresh-voiced unnamed soloists who sing steadily without vibrato. And Ceremony reminds me what a superb anthologist of English verse was Benjamin Britten; many gems here to relish, e.g. the 15C Deo Gracias.
Googling, I found that Britten’s Ceremony of Carols "has spawned more ghastly recordings than almost any other in the choral cannon!". There are several for boys’ choirs, but none unequivocally done by girls? These Scots lasses met for a workshop week in Aberdeen where they recorded this programme. Luckily for me on this occasion, Musical Pointers does not do comparative reviews or award stars.
And this version is unique in its coupling, a premiere recording of a worthy companion piece, Elizabeth Poston’s An English Day-Book [c. 1969], a felicitous set drawing on Britten’s example and including Spring, the sweet spring which Britten featured in his Spring Symphony. Extras include the setting of a poignant poem with wonderful imagery ending "Not yet, I say. Don’t mourn me yet!" written by a young girl shortly before she was killed in a car accident.
Signum’s NYCoS National Girls Choir version of A Ceremony of Carols goes high on my Christmas recommendations list.
Musicweb.com, December 2010
This is not just another recording of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The problem, ever since the advent of the LP, has been selecting a coupling. Britten’s own St Nicholas, as on the recording by King’s College Cambridge and David Willcocks, EMI Great Artists 5627962 – also available less expensively on Classics for Pleasure 9689492, with Rejoice in the Lamb and other Britten works directed by Philip Ledger – or A Boy Was Born have obvious seasonal relevance, but neither work comes anywhere near to the Ceremony of Carols in terms of quality or popularity. I suspect that both are wonderful pieces to sing, but less attractive to listeners.
I’m afraid that the same applies to Rejoice in the Lamb, as recorded with the Ceremony by Trinity College Cambridge and Richard Marlow on Sony Essential 88697581312, a work which in any case has no seasonal relevance, though its date of composition is close to that of the Ceremony.
A highly recommended Hyperion recording couples the Ceremony with the Missa Brevis and other Britten choral works (CDA 66220, Westminster Cathedral Choir/James O’Donnell) but becomes effectively a CD of two halves – one suitable for Christmas but not for the rest of the year, the other all-year-round music. A Naxos recording also couples year-round music by Britten with the Ceremony (8.553183 conducted by Ronald Corp) and Nicholas Wilkes with the Finchley Children’s Music Group couples another non-Christmas work, Noyes Fludde (SOMM212), though that is as recommendable as any of the better-known recordings of the latter, including Britten’s own.
Even the Coro CD on which Harry Christophers and the Sixteen sing the Ceremony and other Britten works, contains only one other seasonal item, an arrangement of the Shepherd’s Carol (COR16034). Their Christmas collection, Hodie, which I recommended in last year’s Christmas Downloads and again this year as part of a three-CD reissue, entitled A Christmas Collection preferable, coupling the Ceremony and A Hymn to the Virgin with other 20th century English Christmas music by composers ranging from Herbert Howells to Peter Hayward. That represents the other solution, which is to drop the Britten connection and couple other Christmas music, as on CRD 3514, where Nancy Hadden adds a selection of mediaeval and Renaissance English carols and dances, or CRD 3490 where the Choir of New CollegeOxford and Edward Higginbottom include music by other 20th century English composers.
Christopher Bell writes in the notes: “I have known, performed and loved the piece over many years and each time I perform it, I marvel at its fine melodies and inventive accompaniment. For the same number of years I have been looking for another piece of music for the same combination to pair with it in a concert.” Now Signum offer us a new solution: Bell believes that he has found that perfect companion in the shape of Elizabeth Poston’s An English Day-Book, which he describes as a wonderful piece. The downside, of course, as with several other of the recordings which I’ve mentioned, is that one ends up with 22 minutes of Christmas music, not suitable for the rest of the year, and 27 minutes of music which is suitable for the rest of the year.
Actually, too, there’s an element of special pleading here. Bell’s note that “[Poston’s] handwritten manuscripts did not always match with the harp part” is guilty not only of pleonasm – what is a manuscript if not handwritten? – but also of a degree of partial truth, since it appears that Poston’s original English Day-Book was composed with a piano, not a harp accompaniment in mind. The Bellman’s Song and Sweet Suffolk Owl from the cycle certainly exist in that form, the latter also in an orchestra version.
Add to that the fact that 49 minutes represents pretty short value for a CD, when many of the other recordings that I have mentioned offer more music at bargain- or mid-price, and two questions arise in connection with this CD: is the rest of the music worthy to stand alongside Britten’s minor masterpiece and are the performances of all of the contents good enough to stand against the opposition sufficiently well to justify paying around £12 for such a short playing time? I have to answer both with a qualified negative.
The Ceremony of Carols opens with a processional singing of the plainsong Hodie Christus natus est. The choir should sound as if approaching from at least the middle distance, an effect not quite achieved on the new recording where the procession seems to approach a little too rapidly. This is not a serious fault and I don’t wish to make too much of it, but it does make the opening a little less magic than it should be, a fault exacerbated by the fact that the singing of the chant would not entirely pass muster in most monastic establishments.
After that I have no serious quarrels with this recording. I might have wished for a little warmer welcome in Wolcum Yole and a touch more reflection in There is no rose, but, again, these are not serious reservations. The singers capture the frosty tones of In freezing Winter’s Night, appropriately described the booklet as a plangent solo piece, and the transition to Spring Carol excellently. It’s always a problem to know how to pronounce the Late Middle English and Early Modern English texts which Britten sets – they’re not ‘old English’ as Samir Savant’s notes describe them: that term correctly applies to the pre-1066 language also known as Anglo-Saxon. Britten employs the part-modernised spelling of the English Galaxy of Shorter Poems, from which he took them, so it’s probably correct, as here, not to attempt late-medieval pronunciation – about which, in any case, there are conflicting scholarly theories. The diction here is so-so: don’t expect to hear the words of Robert Southwell’s poem This little Babe. That’s more the fault of Britten’s syncopated rhythm than the singing, but enunciation is not one of the virtues of this performance throughout. In any case, the texts are included. What is described in the booklet as the angularity and dynamism of This Little Babe is well captured.
The other pieces which are singled out in the notes, That Yonge Child for its plangent solo, Balulalow for its smooth polyphony, and As Dew in Aprille, again for angularity and dynamism all live up to expectation – the effect in the latter piece better achieved than by most boys’ choirs, for whom Britten originally intended the work. Claire Jones’ harp accompaniment is never intrusive, except in the central solo Interlude, which she plays well.
One might expect a daybook to be a personal diary, the literal translation of the German word Tagebuch, but Elizabeth Poston’s English Day-Book is actually a sequence of sacred and profane poems relating to different times of the day and year. It opens and closes with Thomas Ravenscroft’s The Bellman’s Song, the first appearance of which is followed by the compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum, then an anonymous poem A Night Curse. The traditional Mayday song Lemady, a 16th century Charm Against The Bumble Bee, an anonymous 18th century poem The Noonday Heat, Thomas Nashe’s Spring – also employed by Britten in his Spring Symphony – John Fletcher’s Evening Song and Thomas Vautour’s Sweet Suffolk Owl complete the eclectic mix. Despite the undoubted virtues of the performance, I’m sorry to say that An English Day-Book made little impression on me for good or ill. While I was listening, I enjoyed what I was hearing, partly surprised that there was really nothing here more angular than the Britten – indeed, challenged to identify much of this music blind, I’d have plumped for Britten – but I was unable to remember a single piece afterwards.
The remaining works are very short and add little either way to the CD. Each is introduced by its composer and full texts of all the works are included in the attractive booklet, which nevertheless manages not to inform us when the Poston work was composed. I believe that the cycle as a whole was completed in the late 1960s but that parts date from much earlier: Boosey and Hawkes list Sweet Suffolk Owl and The Bellman’s Song as having been published in 1925, both originally for voice(s) and piano.
The recording is good throughout, though the voices occasionally sound a little shrill, for example in As Dew in Aprille, though whether that is the fault of the singers or the recording I’m not sure.
With few disappointments in the Britten, good recording throughout, and no competition for the rest of the programme, I feel that I ought to be more enthusiastic about this CD. If you are tired of seasonal fare to accompany Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, it may be just the thing that you are looking for.
Most listeners will, I suspect, prefer one of the rival recordings mentioned earlier. For my own part, I should be inclined to go for The Sixteen on Hodie. I’m sorry not to be more positive about the work of Elizabeth Poston: as a major figure in 20th-century British music, including the founding of the Third Programme, she deserves to be better known than as the composer of that wonderful carol Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, her only other work in the recorded catalogue, I think – it even crops up on a Wedding Collection on Naxos – apart from one recording of another carol, Entre les bœufs et l’âne.