2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth and Hyperion starts celebrating early with this disc of two of the composer’s most popular choral works, both with a Christmas relevance. The cantata Saint Nicolas tells the story of the original ‘Santa Claus’, a fourth-century saint whose acts—revitalizing three boys who had been pickled by an unscrupulous landlord being among the more dramatic—led to his canonization as patron saint of children and sailors. Britten’s lively setting is distinctly operatic, full of incident and colour—with the story brought ‘home’ through the use of congregational hymns. The part of Nicolas (here sung magnificently by Allan Clayton, already acclaimed as the heir to Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson) is one of Britten’s great heroic tenor roles.
The intensely practical choral music of the young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds is steadily gaining appreciation across the world. The works on this new album owe their genesis to commissions from the United States, England and northern Europe and encompass ethereal expressions of uniquely arctic phenomena (listen for wine glasses turned—and tuned—to wondrously simple but devastating effect within the choral texture), American ballads and several works in the ‘Anglican tradition’, the fruits of the composer’s recent residency at Trinity College Cambridge. Trinity College Choir Cambridge here returns the compliment, as it were, with superlative performances of these varied and engaging works, all recorded under the watchful eye of the composer and conductor Stephen Layton.
Herbert Howells was acutely sensitive to the transience of life, having witnessed the loss of friends and contemporaries in the First World War and encountered deep personal tragedy when his son Michael died of polio at the age of just nine. And so a mood of elegiac yearning inhabits much of his choral music: the austere, lovely a cappella Requiem, and the elegant Take him, earth, for cherishing, commissioned to commemorate the death of President John F Kennedy, here lovingly performed by the young voices of Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, in Hyperion’s Record of the Month for April 2012.
The pieces brought together on this CD range widely, from ceremonial works associated with affairs of state to intimate compositions addressing moments of great personal significance. Two of the three pieces by Parry best exemplify this contrast: if I was glad – written for the coronation of Edward VII and premiered in chaotic circumstances – fits into the former category, ‘My soul, there is a country’ (from Songs of Farewell) – composed in the year of his death – belongs in the latter.
Compilations are highly useful in understanding the works of the inexhaustibly tuneful British composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He had a few big hits, like the Funeral Music for Queen Mary (which is included here) and the opera Dido and Aeneas (which isn't). But much of his best music is scattered around in small bits, residing within genres that are rather odd from today's perspective. Purcell spent much of his short adult life as a theater composer, and his incidental music, for example, is filled with perfect miniatures…
This anthology of devotional music from 18th-century Venice and Naples offers an interesting and varied programme. Best known is Pergolesi’s Stabat mater, but the settings by Domenico Scarlatti and Bononcini stand well in comparison. The motets by Lotti, Caldara and Alessandro Scarlatti are real discoveries; Norrington’s performances of the latter are particularly fine. Guest’s Pergolesi suffers from a focus of sound which makes the interpretation seem somewhat generalised. However, all these performances give pleasure, while the music is melodically fresh and rhythmically vital.-Terry Barfoot