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This pair of discs from New College Oxford under their long-standing director of music offers two hours of exemplary music-making. Supported by the Britten–Pears Foundation, this beautifully presented recording gathers together, for the first time as far as i’m aware, all of Britten’s sacred choral music. it makes for a more substantial corpus of music than one might at first expect and yields many unknown treasures to those familiar with the composer’s home territory of opera and art song. of the more substantial works, the popular Ceremony of Carols receives a typically no-nonsense reading from Higginbottom and his consistently excellent trebles, with harpist Emma Granger a sensitive accompanist. Britten would surely have delighted in the boys’ own obvious pleasure in the ricocheting double and triple canons of ‘This Little Babe’. It was a work that the choir recorded back in the 1960s under David Lumsden when New College began its engagement with Britten’s œuvre. But the freshness and vitality of this performance and that of the Missa Brevis (another piece they set down in the 1960s) win hands down. indeed, having recently sampled several recordings of the latter work, this new one from New College is now my number one favourite. If the exquisite Hymn to Saint Cecilia stretches Higginbottom’s choristers a little, they are totally at home in works such as Rejoice in the Lamb, with characterful soloists drawn from the choir and excellent organ playing from Steven Grahl. as might be expected, Higginbottom gives superb readings of all the canticle settings; these are, frankly, Britten at his least inspired, though they are not without occasional flashes of genius. and it is good to see a few genuine rarities –two ‘Prayers’ from the Hopkins settings entitled A.M.D.G (1939) on the programme. A first-rate release to kick start the Britten centennial year and a fine addition to new College’s own recording label. not to be missed.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica


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