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Graham Ross|Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

Graham Ross and Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

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It may seem a little perverse to open this review by bypassing the headline event (Britten's A Ceremony of Carols) in favour of its surrounding programme of early twentieth century carols and short choral works, but the latter are so very enjoyable that I'm almost of the opinion that they're where this programme's true gold lies. Not least because not all of it is much recorded.

Take Gustav Holst's lilting, unaccompanied This have I done for my true love of 1916, drawing on the English folk tradition in its modal harmonies and melodic simplicity. A tradition you hear equally strongly in John Ireland's wistful lullaby, The Holy Boy, initially published in 1913 as a piano prelude, which balances a simple melody with various gently nuanced harmonic surprises. Or Frank Bridge's serene Music, when Soft Voices Die, which – as with organ-accompanied works of Britten's on the programme such as the album-opening Venite Exultemus Domino and the Hymn to St. Peter - isn't technically a Christmas work at all, yet sits perfectly within the whole. Then the icing on the cake is the mixed-voice choral singing itself: the clean-toned freshness of the female sopranos, balancing against the warmth and depth of the overall sound; articulation crisp and warm in equal measure, and always with a beautiful feel for the texts themselves.

On to A Ceremony of Carols, and it's here that opinions are more likely to sharply divide, because it appears not in its original treble-voice form, but instead in arrangement for mixed choir. Just the Procession and Recession are preserved in their original form. Some listeners may appreciate the added oomph the men bring to carols such as Deo gracias. Some may feel that the gossamer charm of Bululalow is gone; also the fragile intimacy of That yongë child, which remains treble voice but is no longer a solo. Harpist Tanya Houghton though is an indisputable joy from start to finish – listen in particular to the beautiful shaping she brings to There is no rose, a true conversation between her and the singers thrown into even sharper relief by the attention the engineering has lavished upon her.

Whether A Ceremony of Carols ultimately floats your boat or not, the programme as a whole is refreshingly non-standard, and all presented via choral singing at its finest. © Charlotte Gardner/Qobuz

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Britten: A Ceremony of Carols

Graham Ross

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1
Venite exultemus Domino
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:04:13

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Oxford University Press, MusicPublisher - Ashley Chow, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

2
Te Deum in C
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:07:42

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Eleanor Carter, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

3
Jubilate Deo in C
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:32

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Ashley Chow, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

4
Deus in adjutorium meum intende
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:04:38

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

5
A Hymn to the Virgin
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:03:25

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

6
A Hymn of St Columba
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:03

Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Eleanor Carter, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - St Columba, Lyricist

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

7
Hymn to St Peter, Op. 56a
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:05:59

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Eleanor Carter, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

8
The Holy Boy
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:52

Herbert S. Brown, Lyricist - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - John Ireland, Composer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

9
Music, when soft voices die, H. 37
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:03:28

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lyricist - Frank Bridge, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Thames, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

10
This have I done for my true love, Op. 34 No. 1, H. 128
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:05:27

Gustav Holst, Composer - Anonymous, Lyricist - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

11
The Sycamore Tree
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:32

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Faber Music Ltd, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

12
The Holly and the Ivy
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:03:38

Anonymous, Composer, Lyricist - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

13
Christ's Nativity: 2. Sweet was the song
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:47

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Faber Music Ltd, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

14
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 1. Procession
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:18

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

15
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 2. Wolcum Yole!
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:23

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

16
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 3. There is no rose
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:29

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

17
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 4a. That yongë child
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:51

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

18
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 4b. Balulalow
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:20

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

19
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 5. As dew in Aprille
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:00:56

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

20
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 6. This little babe
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:26

Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Robert Southwell, Lyricist

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

21
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 7. Interlude
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:04:01

Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

22
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 8. In freezing winter night
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:03:36

Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher - Robert Southwell, Lyricist

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

23
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 9. Spring Carol
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:16

Benjamin Britten, Composer - William Cornysh, Lyricist - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

24
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 10. Deo gracias
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:07

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

25
A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: 11. Recession
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:01:28

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

26
Friday Afternoons, Op. 7: 5. A New Year Carol
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
00:02:17

Anonymous, Lyricist - Benjamin Britten, Composer - Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Choir, MainArtist - Tanya Houghton, MainArtist, AssociatedPerformer - Graham Ross, Conductor, MainArtist - Boosey & Hawkes, MusicPublisher

2020 harmonia mundi 2020 harmonia mundi / Choir of Clare College, Cambridge

Album Description

It may seem a little perverse to open this review by bypassing the headline event (Britten's A Ceremony of Carols) in favour of its surrounding programme of early twentieth century carols and short choral works, but the latter are so very enjoyable that I'm almost of the opinion that they're where this programme's true gold lies. Not least because not all of it is much recorded.

Take Gustav Holst's lilting, unaccompanied This have I done for my true love of 1916, drawing on the English folk tradition in its modal harmonies and melodic simplicity. A tradition you hear equally strongly in John Ireland's wistful lullaby, The Holy Boy, initially published in 1913 as a piano prelude, which balances a simple melody with various gently nuanced harmonic surprises. Or Frank Bridge's serene Music, when Soft Voices Die, which – as with organ-accompanied works of Britten's on the programme such as the album-opening Venite Exultemus Domino and the Hymn to St. Peter - isn't technically a Christmas work at all, yet sits perfectly within the whole. Then the icing on the cake is the mixed-voice choral singing itself: the clean-toned freshness of the female sopranos, balancing against the warmth and depth of the overall sound; articulation crisp and warm in equal measure, and always with a beautiful feel for the texts themselves.

On to A Ceremony of Carols, and it's here that opinions are more likely to sharply divide, because it appears not in its original treble-voice form, but instead in arrangement for mixed choir. Just the Procession and Recession are preserved in their original form. Some listeners may appreciate the added oomph the men bring to carols such as Deo gracias. Some may feel that the gossamer charm of Bululalow is gone; also the fragile intimacy of That yongë child, which remains treble voice but is no longer a solo. Harpist Tanya Houghton though is an indisputable joy from start to finish – listen in particular to the beautiful shaping she brings to There is no rose, a true conversation between her and the singers thrown into even sharper relief by the attention the engineering has lavished upon her.

Whether A Ceremony of Carols ultimately floats your boat or not, the programme as a whole is refreshingly non-standard, and all presented via choral singing at its finest. © Charlotte Gardner/Qobuz

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