Benjamin Britten was renowned throughout his life as a prolific composer of children’s music, and his affection for young people and interest in their world was a defining characteristic of his personality as an artist. In addition to this he showed an enduring affinity for choral writing, and – combining these two interests – the pieces on this disc represent some of the best examples of his music for young voices. Britten began writing for choirs whilst still at school, including in his early output such works as the Hymn to the Virgin and A Boy was Born. He never compromised his often highly modernistic style when writing for young performers, and always managed to challenge his singers’ technical abilities as well as cover a broad spectrum of emotions in his works for children.
The Golden Vanity was composed in 1966 for performance by the world-famous Vienna Boys’ Choir, who commissioned it from Britten and went on to perform it at the Aldeburgh Festival. A vaudeville on the old English ballad of the same name, the work’s double chorus of trebles tells the story of a sea battle with Turkish pirates, the humble cabin-boy who saves the day, and a treacherous sea-captain who refuses to keep the promise of his daughter’s hand in marriage and lets the hero drown. The music is permeated by folk-like shapes that bring to mind traditional English sea-shanties, although an undertone of dissonance and chromaticism reminds us that the story is in fact a dark one of betrayal and death. In his use of folk-song idioms Britten shares an interest with older composers such as Vaughan Williams, but the melodies are treated in a very different manner from the style of his predecessors. The work’s pungent harmonies (including abundant semitonal clashes in the piano part) help to create an uncomfortable and at times even raucous effect. Although The Golden Vanity initially appears to be a more lighthearted work than the Children’s Crusade, we are nonetheless presented with a tragic, typically Britten-esque hero; the lonely, suffering boy, abandoned by all those around him. It is worth noting that Britten’s own schooldays were deeply unhappy, and it is probable that feelings about his own lonely youth are reflected in music such as this.
A Ceremony of Carols is written in a very different vein from the Children’s Crusade and The Golden Vanity, possessing as it does rather more of a sense of innocence and bright exuberance. The dissonance level is much lower in this earlier work, but although imbued with energy and brim-full with singable melodies there are also numerous effective passages of a more reflective nature. Written in the depths of wartime, this is undoubtedly Britten’s most famous work for boys’ voices. Nonetheless, although the piece is scored for a three-part choir of trebles with harp accompaniment, its first performance – in Norwich Castle in December 1942 – was given by the women of London’s Fleet Street Choir. Britten composed much of A Ceremony of Carols whilst travelling back from America to England by ship, and his choice to write what has come to be seen as such a self-evidently ‘English’ work can be interpreted as an expression of his feelings on returning home after his exile. Setting early carol texts, Britten creates a wide range of effects from his little group – different movements feature soloists (including the particularly haunting This Yongë Childe), playful rhythmic writing (Adam lay i-bounden) and the use of canon (in the bravura choral showpiece, This little Babe). Unifying the whole cycle is the plainsong antiphon, Hodie Christus Natus Est, an ancient chant from the Christmas liturgy. The antiphon can be heard here in the Procession and Recession, and is also subtly featured in the improvisatory harp Interlude at the heart of the work….
Britten’s Vaudeville, composed for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, is presented here with A Ceremony of Carols, the Missa brevis in D and the Children’s Crusade. The performances are polished and the boys’ voices very refined – so much so that, in The Golden Vanity, the boys sound rather too polite to be convincing English sailors, let alone bloodthirsty Turkish pirates!
Christopher Maxim –Church Music Quarterly – December 2004
‘Music for Boys’ Voices’, as this pleasing CD is subtitled, presents four works dating from between 1942 (A Ceremony of Carols) and 1968 (Children’s Crusade). They were written for a variety of purposes -A Ceremony of Carols for the Fleet Street Choir, the Missa brevis (1959) for the retirement of George Malcolm as director of music at Westminster Cathedral, The Golden Vanity (1966) for the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Children’s Crusade, written for Wandsworth School Choir and Orchestra, was first performed in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1969 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Save the Children fund. The accompaniments range between telling use of a harp in the Ceremony, organ in the Missa, and piano and percussion in Vanity, to the startling and original scoring for two pianos, organ and a battery of percussion in the Crusade. This last work is the least often recorded and for me the most interesting. It is a setting of Hans Keller’s translation of Brecht’s Kinderkreuzzug and tells starkly of the appalling fate of a group of children wandering through wartime Poland in winter, eventually dying of cold and starvation. In 1970 Britten himself was involved in the historic recording made by Russell Burgess and his Wandsworth School forces.
The Missa brevis is available in several recordings by college and cathedral choirs, among them a version by the 1986 successors to the original Westminster Cathedral performers, directed by David Hill. The ever-popular Ceremony of Carols is listed in more than 20 versions, including ones coupled with the Missa (for example, King’s College Choir under David Willcocks).
The performances on the new Lammas CD are spirited, full of enthusiasm and, even in the bleakest music, evident enjoyment. Diction is less than ideally clear, but the texts (apart from that of the Mass) are printed in the booklet. The recording requires a higher-than-usual volume setting, but balance and the atmosphere of the cathedral are alike impressive. Instrumental contributions are unfailingly musical and highly effective. Stephen Darlington and all his singers and players deserve high praise and warm gratitude.
Peter Branscombe –Internationial Record Review – February 2004
This collection gives us four challenging pieces. The title track was composed in 1966 for the Vienna Boys’ Choir and tells an exciting tale of a sea battle with Turkish pirates in which the young hero drowns. The choristers of Christ Church Cathedral are joined by those from Worcester College Chapel but still do not pack enough punch for this reviewer Credit to Clive Driscoll-Smith on piano for keeping things moving. ‘The Ceremony Of Carols’ from 1942 works much better. This is a collection of a dozen short pieces that are strung together like pearls in a necklace Victoria Davies adds some lovely touches on the harp. Next we have ‘Missa Brevis In D’ from 1959. It is brief but also remarkably powerful, foreshadowing the ‘War Requiem’. We conclude with the ‘Children’s Crusade’, written in 1968 for the Save The Children fund. It tells the grim story of a group of young Poles who starved to death in 1939. It is not an easy piece to listen to but still needs to be heard. The juxtaposition of this with the Christmas make us think.
Steven Whitehead –Cross Rhythms
All in all this is an outstanding release that deserves that warmest recommendation.
Hubert Culot – MusicWeb International