Review: A Ceremony of Carols, Polyphony & Temple Church Choir, Snape, December 8

Aldeburgh’s programme for the centenary of Britten’s birth is already under way and this concert happily joined three of his choral works with music by Poulenc, with whom Britten shared warm personal and professional relations.

The Frenchman was deeply religious and his ‘Quatre motets pour le temps de Noel’ have a strongly devotional atmosphere, particularly the first as it contemplates the mystery of the nativity. The fourth exuberantly celebrates Christ’s birth and the polished singers of Polyphony performed it with an earthy enthusiasm.

The evening was built around the Christmas season but began in longer, sunnier days with Britten’s ‘Five Flower Songs’, written for the silver wedding of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, founders of Dartington Hall and early supporters of the composer. The writing is inventive and sometimes difficult but once again Stephen Layton and his choir delivered accurate and arresting performances, the unresolved harmonies crisp and unwavering.

For ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ the treble voices of the Temple Church Choir were conducted by James Vivian with Sally Pryce a skilful and occasionally mesmerising harpist. The processional entrance set the scene perfectly and the boys sang with clear but unforced enthusiasm. ‘This little babe’ was particularly effective with its clever harp writing and ‘ Deo Gracias’ soared to the heavens.

All performers came together for the final work ‘A Boy was Born’, a remarkable achievement for a nineteen-year-old, even if the finale does sometimes slip into showy virtuosity. The third variation seemed to foreshadow parts of Peter Grimes and the fifth, in which the’ Corpus Christi Carol’ cuts sharply across ‘In the bleak midwinter’ had a chilled intensity.

At just under ninety minutes and with no interval this was a coherent and compelling concert with excellent singing and playing coupled with authoritative musical direction.

Gareth Jones

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