THIS concert took place during Benjamin Britten weekend, the culmination of a year’s events celebrating the composer’s centenary. He has done well in having a large number of his works performed throughout the year, despite the strong competition from anniversaries of two giants of opera, Verdi and Wagner.
The choice here was Britten’s ‘Saint Nicolas’. One of his less frequently performed works, this maybe because boy choristers, piano duet and organ are its rather unusual requirements. Britten had an empathy with the young and a considerable concern for their welfare. He wrote songs for children and included them in several major works.
Legendary Nicolas has long associations with children. Britten’s work is therefore an apt choice for the end of November, when juvenile excitement is building and the generous Saint, in his various guises, will soon be distributing presents worldwide.
Popular Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a great admirer of Britten’s music and much wanted to meet him. When Britten died, in 1976, Pärt was moved to write a threnody ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’.
It is music that is well suited to the Cathedral. The long reverberation time enhances the cascading harmonic clashes and with the insistent tolling of the bell, the funereal effect. A larger body of violins would have enriched the sonority.
Pärt’s ‘Berliner Messe’ was composed for the 90th German Catholic Day at East Berlin in 1990. Hints of Pärt’s ‘tintinnabuli’ compositional technique (bell-like sounds) that is so prominent in the ‘Cantus’ are evident here, but less obsessively so.
The Cheltenham Bach Choir, under the direction of Stephen Jackson, were relaxed and refined, producing a warm blanket of sound in this insidious music. They were supported by the luminous textures of the Regency Sinfonia strings.
Britten clothes the life history of Nicolas in music both egregious and engaging. Joshua Ellicott was the dynamic, declamatory tenor soloist. Singing from outer space, the youngsters were very well prepared, confident and splendidly unanimous.
The Bach Choir were flexible and expressive, but it was a pity that their words were often submerged beneath the instrumental sounds. Clearing their throats to battle with the performers, the audience participated in two hymns.