A Ceremony of Carols, Op.28
Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Orchestra
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Une Cantate de Noël
Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone)
Rachel Masters (harp)
Pieter Schoeman (violin)
Alexander Zemtsov (viola)
New London Children’s Choir
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ronald Corp [A Ceremony of Carols]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Christmas concerts, when given as part of an orchestra’s main season, rarely prove satisfying as programmes. If not wholly successful in the follow-through of its four works, then this offering from the London Philharmonic Orchestra certainly proved a seasonal affair with musical substance. It also provided the rare opportunity to hear professional-standard accounts of two pieces that, owing to their overtly Christmas focus, are much more likely to be encountered in amateur performance.
Many will be the listeners (reviewers too!) who are familiar with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” (1942) through having taken part in its performance. Written for treble voices and harp, this unassuming anthology of largely Medieval carols has introduced them now to several generations. Harmony and rhythm are typical of the composer in their understated ingenuity; something the New London Children’s Choir conveyed under the lively direction of Ronald Corp: whether in the plaintive lyricism of ‘There is no Rose’, the visionary sentiments of ‘This little Babe’, or ebullience of ‘Adam lay i-bounden’ – its heady canonic exchanges lucidly rendered. Rachel Masters was the attentive harpist, and it was a pity that her ‘Andante pastorale’ solo interlude was marred by an inattentive patron.
If the Britten is most likely to be heard in schools, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) has tended to be the preserve of choral societies. Yet this very likeable work uses carols more as means than ends in a finely-wrought tableau, whose progress from doubt to affirmation mirrors that of the composer’s earlier “Toward the Unknown Region”. Anthony Michaels-Moore brought a burnished richness to verse from ‘This is the truth sent from above’, with the London Philharmonic Choir lightening the mood with the strains of ‘Come all you worthy gentlemen’ (a major-key variant of a much better-known carol with a not dissimilar title), before the work climaxes in a joyous amalgam of the ‘Sussex Carol’ and ‘The wassail bough’. Vladimir Jurowski conducted with evident enthusiasm; and, one wonders, whether he was familiar with it prior to the rehearsals for this concert.
In-between came a performance of the Double Concerto that a teenage Britten almost completed early in 1931, only for a later generation to unearth in 1997. In its effective orchestration (expertly realised by Colin Matthews) and compact dimensions, the piece anticipates the instrumental works that Britten wrote over the next 15 years. The first movement pointedly combines its contrasted main themes at the climax, while the central ‘Rhapsody’ alternates between recitative-like writing for violin and viola and a more flowing lyricism to which the orchestra makes a notable contribution. The toccata-like finale then sustains its driving momentum right through to an apotheosis that draws on themes from all three movements, and from which the work quickly dies away to a subdued close.
Superbly played by LPO principals Pieter Schoeman and Alexander Zemtsov, the Double Concerto warrants occasional revival (not least as an alternative to Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante), but yet evinces something of the meretricious efficiency that characterises so much of Britten’s early work, and which has come much more to the fore over the last quarter-century with the steady (and often regrettable) dissemination of works the older composer thought best left in the archive.
The concert concluded with a work from the opposite end of its composer’s output – Une Cantate de Noël (1953 – though largely reworked from an abandoned passion play of a decade earlier) being the last major statement by the ailing Arthur Honegger. Make no mistake – this ‘Christmas Cantata’ is a substantial piece, given interest by its ingenious combining of French and German carols (reflecting the composer’s Swiss ancestry, and perhaps a nod to Franco-German reconciliation in the decade after the Second World War), and notable for the symphonic density with which it unfolds from the agitated despair of ‘De profundis’ to the calm certainty of ‘Laudate Dominium’. Indeed, the work all but picks up from where the tragic Fifth Symphony left off – a performance of both together would be worth hearing.
All of the evening’s performers were assembled for what was a powerful performance of this minor masterpiece, so ending this unusual but welcome concert (being recorded for the LPO’s label?) on a timely note of hope for the future.