Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb; Missa brevis, etc./St. John’s

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Benjamin Britten’s cantata Rejoice in the Lamb has been very well served on recordings, both in performances with men and boys (St. Thomas Church, New York/Koch; Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Decca) and with mixed voices (The Sixteen/Collins; Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Conifer; Corydon Singers/Hyperion). Then there’s Britten’s own performance for Decca, which he made in 1957 with male soloists and the Purcell Singers. The nice thing about including it here, again sung by the Choir of St. John’s, is that it’s not only a fine performance but it shares the program with many other Britten choral works that we rarely get to hear: Antiphon; Festival Te Deum; Jubilate Deo; Hymn of St. Columba; Hymn to St. Peter; the Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria for organ. In addition there are some other familiar masterpieces–the Missa Brevis in D, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, and the beautiful little a cappella piece Britten wrote as a 17-year-old student, A Hymn to the Virgin. The St. John’s choir, with a tradition going back to the 17th century, shows its thorough command of these challenging yet immediately accessible pieces, most of which were written for specific occasions and ensembles.

Although the marquee works are suitably impressive, it’s in the smaller, lesser known compositions that we can really appreciate the choir’s skill and the extent of Britten’s creative investment in even the shortest, slightest works. Highlights include the Te Deum in C, Jubilate Deo, Hymn to St. Peter, and the Antiphon, with its enchanting final delicate echoes between treble soloists and chorus. The performance of the Missa Brevis–one of the most sublime creations ever for boys voices–is full of energy and enthusiasm, and would match the Westminster Cathedral Choir’s excellent version (Hyperion) except for some odd and distracting (but not at all life-threatening) articulations in the Kyrie. But what a marvelous rendition of the Festival Te Deum! The sound gives us the space and resonance of St. John’s chapel while allowing us to hear every detail, with good balance between organ and singers. This disc will make an excellent introduction to Britten’s choral music–and will satisfy Britten aficionados who just can’t resist adding another top-drawer compilation to their collection. [6/8/2000]



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: The Sixteen (Collins), Missa brevis: Westminster Cathedral Choir (Hyperion)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN - Rejoice in the Lamb; Hymn to St. Cecilia; Missa brevis in D; A Hymn to the Virgin; Antiphon; Festival Te Deum; five others


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