BRITTEN – A Ceremony of Carols / A Boy Was Born
The Tudor Consort
Carolyn Mills (harp)
Choristers of St.Mark’s Church School
Michael Stewart, director
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wellington
Saturday, 10th December 2011
This was the first of two concerts given by separate choirs in the capital on different days of the same weekend and in the same venue, both featuring the music of Benjamin Britten. If, after reading this, you’re confused, I confess that I myself had to re-type the sentence a number of times to “fine-tune” and get it right. Fortunately, I was scheduled to attend both events, thus avoiding the likelihood of my turning up at the “wrong one”. Advent is a season which constantly balances delight and confusion, during which anything like that can happen to anybody.
Though Britten’s works are well-known and highly regarded, for some concertgoers he’s still a bit of a tough nut to crack, very much a “twentieth-century” composer, whose music has that edge and astringency which takes listeners out of their comfort-zone. Yet once these characteristics are accepted, rather as one might get used to (and begin to make sense of) a regional accent or an idiosyncratic speech pattern, one begins then to listen past these things to the content of what’s being expressed. Even in the works he wrote for amateur performance he kept a contemporary edge to melodies, harmonies and textures, enough to challenge performers without making too difficult what they were attempting to realize.
Interestingly, though an English composer, much of Britten’s music sounds more “international” than that by nearly all of his contemporaries, the exception being the work of William Walton. That’s not to say that his music doesn’t connect with his cultural roots – as well as being a devotee of the compositions of his great countryman, Henry Purcell, Britten made many voice-settings of medieval and Renaissance English carols and folksongs (as with the two works in this concert), as well as of the verses of a wide range of English poets. But his compositional voice is very much his own, his origins and influences well integrated in an intensely “human” way of expressing emotion in sound.
This “human” attitude towards his art is summed up in his own words: “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain; of strength and freedom – the beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony”. That Britten as a composer “grew” these thoughts from seeds within his very being is borne out by the quality of some of the music he wrote when very young. The Tudor Consort’s recent Britten concert gave listeners the chance to hear a live performance of the most significant work from the composer’s teenaged years – this was a set of choral variations with the title, A Boy was Born.
The work shared the Tudor Consort’s program with the more popular, often-performed A Ceremony of Carols. Written for boys’ treble voices, the work can be successfully (if not quite so characterfully) performed, as here, by a women’s choir – in fact Britten at an early stage of writing the work was seriously considering using women’s voices, and even, at a later stage, a mixed choir. This was a wartime work, much of which was composed during a crossing of the North Atlantic by the composer and his partner Peter Pears, the pair on their way back to a war-torn Europe in 1942 – a salutary demonstration of the “inner life” of art and its creation, though there are parts of the work which do express tensions and struggle between the forces of good and evil, paralleled at that time by the military forces of the free world striving in accord against the perceived Fascist threat.
I had previously heard the “Carols” performed in the same venue by the women’s voices of the Nota Bene Choir – and, as here, with Carolyn Mills as a peerless harpist, once again providing an accompaniment and solo interlude whose character and beauty one could easily die for. Reading between the lines of a review of that concert I wrote in December 2008, I would hazard a guess that there were critical swings and roundabouts regarding the singing in both older and newer performances – Nota Bene’s voices might have sounded a shade less refined in places than did the Tudor Consort’s, but the former may well have brought a bit more vocal “schwung” to appropriate places here and there (an instance being the last “Wolcum!” of the “Wolcum Yole!” opening carol, the earlier performance just that bit more lusty an exclamation of joy).
In places, especially when singing softly, the purity and refinement of the Tudor Consort did have a treble-like quality, which was most appealing. Michael Stewart’s direction brought out a wealth of detail, very “terraced” dynamics in “There is no Rose”, a lovely passage in octaves, and most characterful playing from Carolyn Mills. The solo singing, too, was wrought of magic in places, alto Andrea Cochrane’s beautiful, rock-steady purity for “That Yongë Child” counterweighted by Anna Sedcole’s silvery soprano line in the following “Balulalow”. Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carter once described “This Little Babe” as having all the exuberance and muscularity of a good pillow-fight, an image I confess I couldn’t quite equate with the group’s poised dignity, even when their vocal energies joined in the fray with pin-pricking accuracy against Satan’s fold on the side of Christ and the Angels.
One of the most difficult of the carols to bring off, in a sense, is “In freezing Winter Night”, the piteous words a corrective to the homely kitsch of many of our popular examples of the genre. The music brings to mind T.S.Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” – “…the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter….” but such is the anguish of the music’s stark, uncompromising lines, one imagines Britten might also have in part been paying a tribute to the poet, Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest brutally martyred in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. This “dark centre” of the cycle properly chilled our sensibilities in this performance, soprano Anna Edgington surviving a moment of slight unsteadiness early on to deliver a beautifully soaring strand of tone, seconded by Megan Hurnard’s truly-placed alto. The latter also partnered soprano Erin King in a gracefully-wrought “Spring Carol” which followed, voices and harp providing a sunlit, heartwarming counterweight to the previous carol’s austerities.
The performers then took to the concluding “Deo Gracias” carol joyously and energetically, Michael Stewart encouraging both voices and harp to hurl their sounds up into and throughout the cathedral ambiences with infectious gusto. Had the choir, at this point, then done what Nota Bene did a few years ago, which was to gradually exit the nave completely, while singing the Recessional hymn “Hodie Christis natus est”, my delight would have resounded in the memory, like the voices’ departing echoes, to this moment. Alas, as with the opening “Processional” the Consort chose not to employ the extra distancing the church’s foyer would have given, and so we were, I felt, deprived in both instances of that true frisson of arrival and departure from and to “other realms”. My rapture was thus modified at the time, but fortunately the beauty and presence of the group’s singing made a more lasting impression.
Happily, no such qualification hindered in any way my delight at the Consort’s performance of the evening’s second work – A Boy was Born, first performed in 1934, and the nineteen year-old Britten’s most accomplished composition up to that time. Though, like the “Carols”, the work contains a number of settings of medieval poems and carols, alongside verses by two later poets, the writing here is far more virtuosic and demanding for singers. Britten in fact added an optional organ part a number of years afterwards, undoubtedly prompted by the difficulties groups had experienced in performance up to that time. Still, right from the beginning, and throughout the opening, Michael Stewart got from his voices such exquisite liquidity of tone and subtle gradations of colour, all seemed well for what was to follow.
Joining the Consort were a number of boy choristers from St.Mark’s Church School, whose ethereal voices set one’s scalp a-tingling with their contributions to episodes such as “Lullay, Jesu”, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the “Noel! Wassail!” finale. And the solo treble part in the serenely meditative “Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour” was beautifully sung by Shashwath Joji, except that the final, scarily stratospheric ascent was entrusted, most convincingly, to soprano Anna Sedcole. Throughout the final “Noel! Wassail!” section, the boys’ voices were also given extra, albeit unobtrusive, support by Melanie Newfield’s pure soprano, with pleasing, clearly-defined results.
In its command of detail coupled with a consistently-applied strength of purpose, the Consort’s performance was, I thought, a pretty stunning achievement. Michael Stewart again and again drew from the group expressive moments, episodes and whole worlds which transcended time and place, from the hypnotic murmurings of “snow on snow on snow” in the setting of Christina Rosetti’s famous poem, to the energetic background roisterings of sixteenth-century poet Thomas Tusser’s “Get ivy and Hull, woman, deck up thine house” amid accompanying detailing suggesting joyous seasonal outpourings. It would, in fact, take a response beyond the scope of this review to do full justice to everything the Consort achieved with this music.
So, in conclusion a mere couple of impressions of things from A Boy was Born that have continued to play in my head since the concert – one of them being the group’s breathtaking terracings of trajectory and tone in “The Three Kings”. I loved those ethereal voices of wonderment floating over the lustier-voiced hill-and-dale travellers, relishing their coming-together in great washes of sound at “Gold, Incense and Myrrah-a”, before the sounds departed with the Kings, just as magically and mysteriously. Then, following on, came the contrasted austerities of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, with those boys and soprano voices singing their lament of loss against the patient murmurings of the falling snow, an exquisitely-etched moment. Finally there was the volatile excitement of the Consort’s concluding “Noel! Wassail!”, which left we listeners at once both breathless and energized. And I was pleased the voices proceeded to make nonsense of my earlier assertions regarding a so-called lack of exuberance in the singing – here, the near-orgiastic abandonment of the “Welcome Yule” left our ears appropriately resounding with musical goodwill, which, at the end we took back to our lives to share with others, enriched by both music and its performance beyond measure.