Hymn to St Cecilia: A Celebration of Benjamin Britten

Various Artists
ABC Classics 480 7301
Reviewed by , March 2nd, 2014

2013 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), and as I began drafting this review, his mighty War Requiem was reverberating through the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Whilst I would dearly have liked to have been there to experience the power of a live performance of this masterpiece, I was able to enjoy exploring these two discs in my modest Armidale living room instead! In fact Track 8 on Disc 1 has soprano Galina Vishnevskaya singing “Sanctus,sanctus,sanctus” from the War Requiem in the 1963 performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, the Bach Choir and Britten conducting. It is a remarkable performance. Britten liked to provide music for his friends- such great artists as Vishnevskaya, Mstislav Rostropovich (her husband), Janet Baker, Julian Bream and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, amongst others, and in particular, his lifelong partner and greatest muse, the tenor, Peter Pears. This set provides an introduction to his best works and includes several renowned recordings made with Britten himself conducting or accompanying. It would be very suitable for those unfamiliar with his music, and confirmed Britten fans would enjoy the high quality of the performances. The CD booklet gives no background information at all unfortunately.

For so many singers of my generation, Britten’s choral music has been an integral part of our musical lives since school days. Britten said he wanted his music to be useful to people, and he produced many pieces suitable for school children, community choruses, and cathedral choirs, as well as for professionals. He set British nursery rhymes, old tales, folksongs, and the poetry of his contemporaries as well as poetry from previous centuries. He was regarded by his contemporaries as rather old hat, as he was not at all interested in pushing stylistic boundaries in his compositions. However his choral works have become standard repertoire.
What makes his vocal works so beloved by so many and what is the essence of Britten’s particular contribution to music? I believe it is his power of communication. His early experience writing film music honed his ability to speak directly and simply. This is not to say his music is simple! But he uses relatively uncomplicated methods to achieve great poignancy and clarity of expression. The texts, almost all in English, reveal his compassion, his pleas for tolerance for the outcasts of society, and his wonderful sense of humour. He often took a moral stance and the idea of the loss of innocence was of fundamental importance to him. The huge number of concerts performed this year in his honour by choral groups all over this country alone would support the claim that he is the most loved of choral composers of the twentieth century in the English speaking world.

Top performances, some Australian, of the following choral works can be enjoyed on these discs: Hymn to St Cecilia – The Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner (1995); Rejoice in the Lamb – Choir of King’s College Cambridge (1990) conducted by Stephen Cleobury; excerpts Var.111 and VI from A Boy was Born – Cantillation conducted by Brett Weymark (2002), and A Ceremony of Carols – Choir of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, directed by Michael Leighton Jones (2006). Many delightful folksong arrangements with Yvonne Kenny (soprano) and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes (bass-baritone), accompanied by Sharolyn Kimmorley and Carolyn Almonte (2002) are included too. There are also historic recordings with Britten conducting: the evocative four Sea Interludes from his most famous opera, Peter Grimes, in 1958; the complete Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Peter Pears, Barry Tuckwell and the London Symphony Orchestra (1963), and an excerpt “Now the hungry lion roars “ from Act 111 of the opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1966). We hear Britten accompanying in Canticle 11: Abraham and Isaac with Pears and John Hahessy (alto) in 1961 in a profoundly moving performance of the complete work. Other Australian performances included are the Suite for Harp Op.83 with Marshall Maguire ( 2001) and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra with Christopher Lawrence as narrator, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey (2009).

In the 90’s I sang in Peter Grimes and Death in Venice with Opera Australia and Britten went onto my personal list of the ‘10 greatest composers of all time’, where he has remained. It has been with feelings of gratitude to his humanity and musical genius that I have listened to these discs, enjoying once again music which has enriched my emotional life enormously. To sing such remarkable music and wonderful texts in one’s own tongue, with others, helps build interpersonal bonds that remain for life. Such is the power of great music. Thank you Britten!

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