On November 6 2020, Signum Records released the new Crouch End Festival Chorus recordng of Benjamin Britten's Saint Nicolas & A Ceremony of Carols.
Saint Nicolas was recorded in March 2020 at the newly restored Alexandra Palace Theatre with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Music Director David Temple, with tenor Mark le Brocq as Nicolas. A Gallery Choir drawn from the main chorus was conducted by Mariana Rosas, and the choir was joined by pupils from Coldfall School, and a congregation of guest singers from choirs we have previously collaborated with. David directed the soprano and alto recording of A Ceremony of Carols earlier in 2020, with Sally Pryce on harp.
The new release charted in the Top 10 Specialist Classical Chart, the second highest new entry that week.
BRITTEN RECORDING REFLECTS MOOD OF 2020
Adrian Warner, a tenor in Crouch End Festival Chorus, reflects on a recording which will never be forgotten by the choir.
Sometimes music does reflect life in a poignant way.
There is a moment in Britten’s Saint Nicolas when the tenors and basses play the role of sailors on a ship to Palestine who are about to face a terrifying storm beyond their worst nightmares. Whilst the dark clouds of the Covid-19 virus were starting to gather when the choir arrived to sing the work at a two-day recording session at Alexandra Palace on March 13 2020, nobody could have predicted the ferocity of the rough seas days ahead with the pandemic.
This recording was historic in that respect. Within 10 days, a national lockdown was announced which stopped the chorus from rehearsing for six months as the country tried to reduce the spread of the virus and bring down the death toll.
The singers who took part in the recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Ally Pally’s renovated Victorian theatre knew that their lives were going to change and that these Friday and Saturday sessions might be the choir’s last engagement for a few months. However nobody knew that all but one concert of one of the choir’s busiest years were going to be cancelled or postponed. By the time the recording was released on November 6 2020, the UK would be heading into a second lockdown because the virus was still raging.
The picture on the front of the CD of Britten’s Saint Nicolas and A Ceremony of Carols is of a ship at sea in a storm with flashes of lightening and clouds across the sky. The dark mood tells the story of 2020.
A Ceremony of Carols was recorded by the sopranos and altos of the choir with harpist Sally Pryce in All Saints’ Church in north London in the middle of January 2020. Apart from being a bitterly cold day, it was an uplifting but routine recording.
In contrast, the Saint Nicolas was a recording like no other in logistical terms. Although the rules for social distancing were a long way from being part of everyday life, the choir’s medical advice was to spread the chorus across the auditorium and there was a seat between every singer. The choir was asked not to mix with the orchestra at tea breaks and to use different doors for entering and leaving the theatre.
Yet, despite the unusual circumstances, there was an atmosphere of excitement and positivity in the theatre --- and at times drama and emotion. Tenor soloist Mark Le Brocq was in superb form throughout and treble soloist Zachary Almeida-Rosser from Coldfall Primary School in Haringey showed composure and maturity way beyond his years.
At the end of the piece, the choir and the congregation of guest singers filled the stalls and balcony for a powerful rendition of the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”. The Chorus was joined by members of Hannah Brine’s community choirs, some of whom sang with the chorus at the 2019 BBC Proms.
The last words they sang were “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head. Amen.”
Some singers admitted afterwards to being in tears at the end, although the mood for many as the choir left the theatre at teatime on Saturday was of the satisfaction of two days of memorable music-making.
The recording was partially funded by donations from sponsors, members and supporters of the choir. The works were going to be part of concerts in the Spring and at Christmas but these had to be cancelled. Instead, a listening party was organised on Facebook and Youtube when Music Director David Temple explained the beauty of the work in detail and emphasised how Britten did not want traditional “choir school voices”.
The singing of state school Coldfall Primary, which is close to where the choir rehearses in north London, certainly retained the freshness and innocence that the composer craved.
Our wish is that both works can lift people’s spirits at Christmas 2020 as we wish for a brighter 2021. They were certainly both sung by everyone with joy in their hearts despite the challenges of the day.
Here's what the critics said:
"Any chorister will appreciate this release for choral sound and blend. Without a doubt, an enjoyable listen and something of an accomplishment. "
Leighton Jones, The Classic Review.
"There’s a freshness to the performances the Crouch End Festival Chorus and BBC Concert Orchestra (conducted by David Temple) deliver in their recording of both works that’s special. Much of this owes to the purity of the Chorus’s and soloists’ singing in both pieces."
"There’s an edge to this performance of Saint Nicolas … that is both emotionally gripping and seems perfectly fitting for a piece written for a mix of amateur and professional musicians… The combined forces ably draw out many of the subtleties in Britten’s writing. The “Journey to Palestine” features playing and singing of real atmosphere."
"The Ceremony of Carols that completes the album is similarly strong and lively. All of the solos are cleanly done and the blend of voices within the Chorus is always precise."
Jonathan Blumhofer, Artsfuse.
"Crouch End Festival Chorus (one of London's best non-professional large choirs) is ideal for [St Nicolas] and they sing with sophistication, commitment and engagement. Mark LeBrocq gives a strong account of the title role. The accompanying work is A Ceremony of Carols ...The singers from Crouch End … sing with a lovely fresh and engaging sound."
"Glorious rendition of Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas Cantata and A Ceremony of Carols recorded at Alexandra Palace is a perfect gift for the music lover in your life...
There is so much passion and love in these performances, underpinned by a clear vision of how the works should sound."
David Winskill, Ham & High
"Here at last is a St Nicolas that offers a real alternative to Matthew Best’s superb Hyperion recording...truly heart-catching."
Daniel Jaffé, Classical Music Magazine
"While Christmas musicmaking is somewhat muted this year, happily the new recording of these two works by Crouch End Festival Chorus under David Temple is anything but – somehow capturing the unashamedly 'amateur' spirit of these works while avoiding sounding amateurish."
David Smith, Presto Classical
"A Ceremony of Carols receives supremely enjoyable advocacy here. David Temple presides over a finely nuanced rendering of Britten’s captivating sequence....In the 1947-48 cantata Saint Nicolas Temple directs with purposeful vigour, eliciting admirably spick and span, notably enthusiastic results from his choral and orchestral team (amateur and professional alike)."
Andrew Achenbach, Gramophone
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