Classical CD Reviews

BRITTEN: The Sacred Choral Music = Hymn to St. Cecelia; A Wedding Anthem; Whoso dwelleth; Te Deum in C; Jubilate Deo in E-flat; Hymn to St. Peter; A Ceremony of Carols; Rejoice in the Lamb; Festival Te Deum; Venite exultemus; Jubilate Deo in C; A Hymn to the Virgin; Missa Brevis in D; A Hymn of St. Columba; Prayer I; Prayer II; Antiphon – Choir of New College Oxford/ Edward Higginbottom – Novum

Britten’s sacred music for liturgy all in one place…or is it?

Published on May 28, 2013

BRITTEN: The Sacred Choral Music = Hymn to St. Cecelia; A Wedding Anthem; Whoso dwelleth; Te Deum in C; Jubilate Deo in E-flat; Hymn to St. Peter; A Ceremony of Carols; Rejoice in the Lamb; Festival Te Deum; Venite exultemus; Jubilate Deo in C;  A Hymn to the Virgin; Missa Brevis in D; A Hymn of St. Columba; Prayer I (A.M.D.G.); Prayer II (A.M.D.G.); Antiphon – Choir of New College Oxford/ Edward Higginbottom – Novum NCR 1386 (2 CDs), TT: 120:25 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

One might question whether A Ceremony of Carols belongs in a collection like this. The notes indicate that there are a few pieces not included, yet the desire was to include all of Britten’s music that might reasonably be included in a liturgical setting; Carols would only in a vast stretch of the imagination fit in a quasi-liturgical setting. But pieces like the large A Boy was Born and a few others were left out as being obviously not intended for liturgy. I guess you could argue this either way and be fairly persuasive in your comments no matter which side you chose. But the attempt to gather these works in one place has to be described as admirable, and could fit nicely into many collections.

Novum is a new label, an in-house offering from the Choir of New College Oxford, one of the oldest performing groups in Britain and certainly one of the most recorded. It’s hard to believe that Edward Higginbottom has been there 30 years, but that’s the truth of the matter, and the results of his tenure are obvious on any number of discs. Britten himself of course (as is well known) was ambivalent towards the Anglican Church in general, having been raised on the “low” side and finding himself not too inspired by its rituals. Supposedly he was one of those all too familiar people who counted themselves as believers, yet rejected the “official” church, a rather predictable and tiresome story. For those of his generation, talking about one’s faith was verboten, so no one will really know the whole story behind what he did or did not believe. But his sacred music is substantial, and aside from someone who did revel in the idea of producing music that actually served a purpose, it’s hard to believe that he would have spent so much time and energy in music and texts that had no meaning for him. Much has been made of the idea of his expanding the nature of church music to something more humanistic and “beyond” the obvious liturgical notions of what he was setting, but this is Monday morning quarterbacking. His music is really no more revelatory or innovative that any number of other purely church composers of the last century, though much of it is of an exceptional quality and an important part of his oeuvre.

For the most part I am happy with these performances, though some lack the energy I would like to hear and the tempos seem to reflect the massive reverb in the chapel of the New College. The clarity of the recording is excellent and the feeling is distinctly one of a service setting. The choir itself is very good, as expected, though I must admit at being surprised by some of the rather intense vibrato of the boy soloists, nearly indistinguishable from that of a female soprano.

—Steven Ritter




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