Britten: Sacred and Profane (CD Review -, 2001)

This disc containing the major part of Britten's mixed-voice a cappella repertoire (the Hymn to St Cecilia is the only substantial omission) could hardly be a better showcase for the virtuosity of Polyphony and the increasingly assured talents of Stephen Layton. There's every sign that this music is particularly well "sung in": the phrasing - whether rapid, rat-a-tat or relaxed - carries such a sense of rightness and unanimity, always knowing precisely where it's going; the vowel colours are nothing if not alluring; and, most noticeable of all, the blend and balance of voices is exceptional.

The excellent recorded sound saps all the benefit from the airy spaces of the Temple Church in London without ever becoming swimmy. The works span a period of some 45 years of Britten's life, from the ever-popular childhood A Hymn to the Virgin to the often fiendishly tricky Sacred and Profane based on that intriguing mix of eight medieval lyrics. The "Choral Dances" from the opera Gloriana, recalling the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, are ravishingly sung. But to my mind there is nothing better here than the performance of AMDG, where Polyphony gives the Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry all the passionate commitment it demands.

Andrew Green

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