Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb; Hymn to St Cecilia; Missa brevis

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Rejoice in the Lamb; Hymn to St Cecilia; Missa brevis
PERFORMER: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554791
These days, Britten’s sacred works may sound thinner and more minimalist than they did to ears that once heard them as contemporary music. Even so, the wonder is that he brought such life and originality to these time-honoured prayerbook texts, which like many another public schoolboy he’d have heard day in and out in chapel. Familiarity brought insight, not contempt, with enough of the former to spread through two settings of the Te Deum, that text most sinned against by organist composers, and with plenty to spare for a Jubilate Deo, following in the order for Morning Prayer. Then there were responses to sacred words of poets past and present, including Christopher Smart and WH Auden. And ‘to be useful, and to the living’, he wrote hymns more modern than ancient, offerings to St Columba and St Peter, like chippings from the workshop where St Nicolas was sculpted.

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With Britten comes the thought of high voices: boys’ voices that on this Naxos disc belong to the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. There are many alternatives from which to choose, but the classics in the interpretative canon are well established. Though this release is not quite on the level of Philip Ledger with the King’s College Choir, the St John’s singers roundly capture the elusive tonal qualities of Britten’s choral music, and the recording has a proper sense of space and locality. In places the Hymn to St Cecilia fails to take wing, but in compensation there are many fine solos both here and in Rejoice in the Lamb. Nicholas Williams