Benjamin Britten St Nicolas Christ's Nativity Psalm 150 Steuart BedfordBenjamin Britten
St Nicolas, Christ’s Nativity, Psalm 150

St Nicolas:
Philip Langridge, tenor

Tallis Chamber Choir
English Chamber Orchestra
Steuart Bedford, conductor

Christ’s Nativity:
BBC Singers

Psalm 150:
New London Children’s Choir
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Steuart Bedford, conductor

Naxos, 2003 (previously issued on Collins Classics, 1996)

This recording collects three vocal works by Benjamin Britten composed in different stages of his career and performed by some very good ensembles: they are St Nicolas, Christ’s Nativity and Psalm 150.

The cantata St Nicolas was commissioned to Britten by Lancing College (Sussex), Peter Pears’ old school, to celebrate its centenary in 1948. The text was provided by Eric Crozier, who had previously worked with Britten on other projects and who was inspired for this one by some legendary episodes from the life of the saint. Britten wrote the cantata in just three weeks and carefully balanced the orchestral, choral and solo parts in regard to the performers’ skills, so that only tenor, percussionists and a string quartet had professional parts (the tenor part was written for Pears). St Nicolas was performed for the first time at the first Aldenburgh Festival in June 1948, while the performance at the Lancing College took place the following month. Both performances were conducted by Britten himself.

Christ’s Nativity (originally called Thy King’s Birthday) was written in 1931, while Britten was still a student at the Royal College of Music, and was performed in its entirety for the first time only in 1991. Only two of the five Christmas carols were known to the public during the composer’s lifetime: New Prince, New Pomp and Sweet was the Song, both performed in at the Aldenburgh Festival, in 1955 and 1966 respectively. As for Psalm 150, it was written to celebrate the centenary of Britten’s preparatory school, South Lodge, in Lowestoft (re-named Old Buckenham Hall School), which he attended from 1923 to 1928.

The present recording is of very good, even excellent quality. It is sung and played by different choruses and orchestras, with the only link of the conductor for two of them.

St Nicolas is an impressive work thanks to tenor Philip Langridge, the Tallis Chamber Choir and the English Chamber Orchestra, directed by Steuart Bedford, but its music is a little too pompous for my tastes. Anyway, I think that the Tallis Chamber Choir is worth a listening and has something magnetic in it, thanks to its vigorous and necessarily dry singing.

The BBC Singers are marvellous in the Christ’s Nativity (and the Christ’s Nativity is amazing too) and gives us a moment of peace and meditation with their impeccable, highly evocative singing a cappella. The most beautiful piece is, in my opinion, the second one (Sweet was the Song), with its almost Medieval atmosphere and its quiet and inspired singing, but if you prefer more animated, vivacious pieces, you cannot fail to admire the next one, Preparations.

The shortest work of the album, Psalm 150, is not the less interesting, since it is a pleasure to listen to the little but competent angels of the New London Children’s, very well trained and clearly enthusiast. The London Schools Symphony Orchestra, for its part, plays with an appreciable, resolute way.