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

AMDG presents as formidable a challenge to its singers as any of Britten's compositions for unaccompanied choir. In fact that is sometimes suggested as the reason why, having written it for an expert group in 1939 and realising that its chances of frequent performance were slim, Britten never prepared the work for publication. It's a pity he couldn't have heard Stephen Layton's Polyphony! Even more than the Finzi Singers, their predecessors on record, they have worked it into the system so that they have the sense of it clearly in their mind and can make the word-setting fresh and spontaneous. 'God's Grandeur' (allegro con fuoco) has the fire: the Finzis seem almost cautious by comparison. In 'The Soldier' Polyphony catch the swing of the triples and dotted notes with more panache and make more of the words. Then, taking a slightly slower tempo than the Finzis, they bring out the tender lyricism (sopranos and tenors in octaves) in 'Prayer II' and grasp more decisively the con moto, Vivace and Avanti! markings in 'O Deus, ego amo te'.
In the Five Flower Songs Polyphony have a slight advantage (these distinctions are all 'slight' in the normal degrees of comparison because all of the performances are of a remarkably high standard) over The Sixteen (Collins, 8/92 - nla) in that theirs is a rather younger tone and their numbers (or maybe the record sound) allow them to convey more sense of round-the-table intimacy. In the Choral Dances from 'Gloriana', The Sixteen may well be found preferable on account of the version they use, involving solo tenor and harp. With the straightforward choral version Polyphony improve on the Finzi Singers' performance with crisper rhythms and a clearer acoustic The ethereal and rarely heard Chorale after an old French Carol has, in comparison with the only other available recorded version, under Hickox, a greater share of heavenly light (and lightness); and Sacred and Profane, like AMDG a work for virtuosos, is given with wonderful confidence and imagination.
On a personal note, I'd like to revert to the remarks on AMDG in my original review of the Finzi Singers' record: 'It commands attention and gains an admiration that I can't quite see growing into affection.' Well, it has grown. These seven settings of poems by Hopkins, so discouragingly set aside by the composer, now seem virtually inseparable from their ever-moving text.

John Steane

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