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

Almost the only criticism I have of this superb programme is that in Sacred and Profane, Britten's late group of settings of early English poems, Polyphony employ the sort of studied `authentic' pronunciation that one associates with the most scholarly of early music specialists. And yet at various points in his career Britten turned to the very different sounds and syntaxes of foreign languages as a spur to his inventiveness, and his use of middle English could be regarded as the last of those forays. Certainly Polyphony's willingness to sing with full tone and their very precise pitching - two of their most admirable qualities - do point up the work's striking range of choral colour and imagery, and perhaps the sound of the language intensifies this.

Here, and throughout, Polyphony's own sound, which is very full for a chamber choir and exceptionally well balanced, is most beautifully conveyed by the recording. It was made in Temple Church in London, which offers both a pleasing resonance and the ability to place the second group of singers, responding in Latin to the English prayer of the Hymn to the Virgin, at a slight distance: extremely effective. Nor is the recording too close: the singers are, as it were, on a concert platform. Their weight of tone, where needed, gives great solemnity to the seldom-heard Chorale after an Old French Carol, but they have also the nimble lightness of touch for a very fresh account of the dances from Gloriana. For many listeners the real discovery will be A.M.D.G., seven settings of Gerard Manlev Hopkins that Britten unaccountably withdrew. Like Sacred and Profane they are full of very imaginative choral effects (exceptionally rich, complex harmonies in No. 1, boldly bare simplicity elsewhere) to which Polyphony's remarkable qualities are ideally suited; I have not heard either of these important cycles better sung.

Michael Oliver 

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