Ebor Singers, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 15
THIS was the Ebors’ now traditional performance of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, spiced with a selection of contemporary American carols and seasonal songs.
The Britten, given in the original all-female version, was accompanied by the harp of Rachel Dent, even to the extent of some optional improvising during the processional plainsongs. Her Interlude was a touch halting, but elsewhere she sustained a pleasing pulse.
The singing had its moments, though few were provided in the solo work where intonation was wayward. As a choir, the ladies made plentiful amends. There was a lovely legato in There Is No Rose and a direct, confident approach to This Little Babe. In contrast, the reverential ending to In Freezing Winter Night reflected the manger’s “humble pomp”.
The pair of soloists in Spring Carol chirped merrily. Deo Gracias was a little too rushed for its cross-currents to have maximum impact. Though it was good to have this music made available again, its overall effect was not as strong as it was last year.
In The Moon Of Wintertime, the evening’s subtitle, taken from the Canadian Huron carol, was also used by American composer Stephen Paulus. In the event, his modal tune was less attractive than the original (Jesous Ahatonhia), and he used a bowdlerized paraphrase of Edgar Middleton’s translation, which is much less down-to-earth than the native Indian version. Its last verse, however, was a model of choral control here.
The same composer’s Three Nativity Carols, surprisingly enjoying their UK premiere – Paulus died in 2104 – brought an engaging post-Britten style to some ancient texts. They were accompanied by oboe (Jane Wright) and harp (Dent). Syncopation jollied up The Holly & The Ivy, florid oboe counterpointed the slow rocking of This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings used a proper refrain to add colour to the mediaeval text, with the instruments dancing attendance.
Much of the rest was slow-moving and diction went to the wall. American audiences may love it, but Craig Hella Johnson’s pairing of Lo, How A Rose with Amanda McBroom’s The Rose (written for Bette Midler and covered by Westlife) did the lovely Praetorius tune no favours at all.
Hackneyed favourites by Lauridsen and Whitacre came and went and a Jake Runestad lullaby just picked itself in time to avoid a similar fate. It was left to Nico Muhly’s setting of Longfellow’s Snowflakes, with piano backing, to offer some true atmosphere, albeit out of a corner of the minimalist playbook. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas makes for a tacky ending – it should be dropped.
I know this was a Christmas concert, with all the festive sentimentality that implies, but overall I left feeling that this choir is coasting: it is capable of tackling something a lot less anodyne and a lot more challenging.
Review by Martin Dreyer