A Britten Christmas from Nota Bene

A Britten Christmas: Alla Marcia; A Hymn to the Virgin; Simple Symphony; Rosa Mystica; Sweet was the Song; The Sycamore Tree; Saint Nicolas cantata.

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Michael Vinten, with soloists, and orchestra, Amber Rainey and Ken Ryan (piano) and Douglas Mews (organ) in Saint Nicolas.

Sacred Heart Mary Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday, 11 December, 2.30pm

Hearing two programmes of Britten’s choral music in two days (less than 24 hours) may be some kind of record, apart from at Aldeburgh perhaps.   Saturday evening’s concert by the Tudor Consort in the same venue featured two major choral works; Sunday’s a third: Saint Nicolas, Op. 42.  Not as many people attended this concert as were at the previous evening’s, but for a sunny Sunday approaching Christmas it was a good-sized audience.

Sunday’s concert interspersed choral items with movements from the composer’s Simple Symphony in the first half, while the second half consisted of the cantata Saint Nicolas, written in 1948, to marvellously beautiful, musical and evocative words by Eric Crozier, who also wrote opera libretti for Britten.  It was written for the centennial celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex.   The saint is co-patron saint of the College, and of children, sailors and scholars.  He flourished in the fourth century, in what is now Turkey, being Bishop of Myra.

As I said in a review in April, Nota Bene’s performances are marked by accuracy, finesse and elegance.  One could add commitment, and dramatic qualities where required.

The programme commenced with the rather inconsequential Alla Marcia, an early work of Britten’s.  I found it rather dull, and poorly played by the scratch orchestra.  However, there were hints in Britten’s writing of greater felicities to come.

The choir, with semi-chorus behind the audience, under the gallery, performed A Hymn to the Virgin.  Especially for those of sitting towards the back of the church, this was very resonant.  The choir generally produced lovely tone; Sacred Heart is particularly good acoustically for voices, but perhaps not so fine for stringed instruments.  It is astonishing that Britten wrote this quite complex work, based on a medieval poem, when he was only 17 years of age.   The antiphonal words in Latin (the remainder being in English) were extremely effective.

The Simple Symphony Op. 4 is a joyous work, each movement having its own delightful character: Bourée; Pizzicato; Sarabande; Finale.  The movements were played separately between the short choral items.  The idea was, presumably, to divide up the latter from each other, thus giving both the singers and the audience breaks.  However, the performance lost both the continuity and the contrast of the symphony.  The start was ragged, but the playing improved as time wore on.

Rosa Mystica, written in 1939, was new to me.  To quote one of the choristers to whom I spoke later, “It’s like dabbing paint onto a canvas – a layered piece of different colours”.  The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is full of imagery – another illustration of Britten’s feeling for fine words.  Much of the work was quite monotone, yet with the parts in layers.  It was beautifully sung, but not as appealing to me as most of his other writing for choirs.

The pizzicato second movement of the symphony was played very well on the whole, and conveyed its charm, the emphases in the phrasing given due weight.

Following that, the choir sang Sweet was the song; short, and sweet indeed.  The evocative, floating music for choir over a fine, dramatic solo from choir alto Stephanie Gartrell offered an attractive contrast in timbres.  Much of the solo was quite low in the voice, but the soloist’s rich voice came through well.

The slow third movement of the symphony provided the best playing so far; the cello solo was very fine.

As with the previous choral item, The Sycamore Tree was an early piece of the composer’s choral writing from the 1930s that was revised for publication in the 1960s.  The words are better known (and set to music by other composers) as I saw three ships.  It is a very lively piece, with plenty of variety.  A wide range of dynamics gave energy to the wonderful writing for voices.

The Finale from the symphony ended the first half.  The contrasting moods were communicated well, but intonation was often suspect.  Nevertheless, the orchestra made a good showing overall, particularly later, in Saint Nicolas.

Having sung Saint Nicolas several times with the Orpheus Choir in the 1980s, I have a particular affection for the work.  By its nature it is a dramatic piece, so it was good to see Nota Bene branching out, with the help of one of its members, experienced opera producer Jacqueline Coats, into enacting scenes, moving around the auditorium, and singing parts of the cantata from memory.

While the orchestra played the short orchestral introduction, the choir came on in mufti, representing peasant people, singing.  Then St. Nicolas (Benjamin Makisi) appeared through the door from the foyer (i.e. amongst the audience) and sang with boldness, vigour and drama in his tenor voice.  His solo is filled with sensitive, imaginative settings of Crozier’s wonderful words.  The choir responds with a graceful yet forceful utterance, “Help us Lord! To find the hidden road…”

The second section is titled “The Birth of Nicolas”.  The women narrate details of the birth (which they sang from memory while performing movements that acted out the words), while young Nicolas (Mark Wigglesworth) sang, or perhaps intoned, on one note, the words “God be Glorified” after each little episode.  His voice was even, clear, and true.  The bouncy, even jolly nature of the writing for the women showed Nicolas to be a robust character, and contrasted with the plainsong-like nature of the boy’s part.

Section III, “Nicolas Devotes Himself to God” describes Nicolas’s life in more of Crozier’s elegant words (“The foolish toy of time, the darling of decay…”) until the fourth part: “He Journeys to Palestine”, in which a storm while Nicolas is on board ship is illustrated most graphically in the music, both for the men of the choir (who sang from memory) and for orchestra.  This was very well done for the most part, but one section was rather messy – I suspect the pitch there was too low for most of the men.  A women’s semi-chorus in the gallery added its onomatopoeic contributions most effectively, although the orchestra was a little too loud for the semi-chorus to be fully heard.

Makisi sang “O God!  We are weak, sinful, foolish men…” with feeling, while the following solo “The winds and waves lay down to rest…” echoes in the music the change of mood with the change of weather.

Part V, “Nicolas Comes to Myra and is Chosen Bishop” features the choir singing in harmony (as against much counterpoint and layered writing) with organ, in perhaps my favourite bit of the work: “Come, stranger sent from God!”  It did not disappoint – strong, warm singing and blazing organ tones. This section ends in complete contrast, with intricate counterpoint, including the exhilarating “Amen!  Serve the Faith and spurn His enemies!”

After the choir and congregation sang “All people that on earth do dwell”, came the sixth section: “Nicolas from prison”.  In places Ben Makisi seemed unrehearsed; incorrect words (there were a lot to sing) and poor diction marred his performance, also a lack of commitment to the character.  For example, he sings “Yet Christ is yours – yours!”  This brought forth no mood-change, no irradiation of the texture, no great evocation of heavenly love.  The following words concerning God’s mercy were reflected in a change of music to placid cadences, though that was less represented in Makisi’s singing.

“Nicolas and the Pickled Boys”, section VII, features brilliant writing for choir and orchestra.  The character of winter cold and famine is wonderfully evoked, as is the triumph of the boys springing back to life.  Mark Wigglesworth was joined by Roman Dunford and Marcus Millad to walk through the church hand-in-hand to sing their Alleluias.  This section was quite moving, the more so for being acted, and sung from memory.

The penultimate section is titled “His Piety and Marvellous Works”.  This is sung entirely by the choir (using scores), its broad sweep of sound encompassing the many years of Nicolas’s being Bishop of Myra and the events that marked them.  The benign tone from the choir was echoed in the orchestra.  The choir disposed itself on all four sides of the church, giving added emphasis to the breadth of Nicolas’s ministry, and the different manifestations of his influence and miracles.  The final phrases “Let the legends that we tell” were a marvel of both counterpoint and harmony.

Finally, we reached “The Death of Nicolas”.  This section was characterised by noble settings of Nicolas’s words in committing his life to God, while the choir sings the canticle “Nunc Dimittis”.  The choir and congregation sang “God moves in a mysterious way” to end a marvellous, thrilling performance.

Britten’s imaginative writing was always faithfully rendered by the choir – can one ask for more?  The contribution of the orchestra was very significant, and especial mention must be made of the organist (Douglas Mews), the pianists (Amber Rainey and Ken Ryan) and the percussion section (Grant Myhill and Ben Hunt) for their major parts in the cantata.  Britten’s writing for the piano is individual, and always crucial to the mood and importance of the overall sound and texture.

Throughout the concert Michael Vinten directed his diverse forces admirably.  They included the audience (“congregation” in the printed programme), who joined in the two hymns prescribed by Britten.

Jacqueline Coats justifiably took her bow with Michael Vinten and Ben Makisi; her efforts resulted in a more meaningful experience, and was in the tradition of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde – I’m sure he would have approved.