Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

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COMPOSERS: Benjamin Britten
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
WORKS: A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28; Saint Nicolas, Op. 42
PERFORMER: Allan Clayton (tenor); The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Holst Singers; Boys of the Temple Church Choir/Stephen Layton; Sally Pryce (harp); City of London Sinfonia


Britten originally had a women’s choir in mind when he started composing A Ceremony of Carols. The clear-toned adult voices of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, highlight qualities in the work often missed when performed by the more usual boys’ choir: the eerie beauty of ‘That yongë child’ blossoms when confidently phrased and shaped dynamically as it is here by Zoë Brown, and Katherine Watson brings maternal warmth to the following ‘Balulalow’. Perhaps Trinity sounds too well behaved to match the boisterous enthusiasm boys typically bring to the hectic canon of ‘This little babe’; elsewhere, though, the gains in terms of technical assurance and expression make this a welcome recording of this well‑loved work.

Saint Nicolas, though again superbly sung by the combined choirs, is less compelling. Partly this is down to the closely miked recording, balanced, I suspect, to ‘big up’ the choirs’ collective sound and so mitigate the lack of massed voices for the congregational hymns. It was precisely such extra forces that made Hyperion’s previous 1988 recording of Saint Nicolas, conducted by Matthew Best, so stirring a listening experience. And though tenor Allan Clayton has a lovely voice, he lacks the commanding edge even the mild-toned Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Best’s recording (let alone Peter Pears on the composer’s) manages to summon for ‘Nicolas comes to Myra’. Most fatally, Stephen Layton’s well-drilled forces miss the sense of rough enthusiasm this community work needs to come alive.


Daniel Jaffé