Britten's cantata St Nicolas was ground-breaking when it was written, in 1948, for the way it brought together professional and amateur musicians, instrumentalists as well as singers. How does it hold up today? Well, some aspects of Eric Crozier's libretto haven't worn well, at least for this reviewer, but Britten's music sounds as fresh as ever.
The Matlock-based Derbyshire Singers, conducted by Lynne Clark, got off to a good start - Derby Cathedral, Derby, UK, 16 November 2019 - projecting uncertainty in their appeal to Nicolas to show them 'the simple man within the saint'. Their restlessness was compounded by Morven Brice's unfaltering negotiation of the solo violin part's corkscrew contours, with steadily pulsing support from her Derbyshire Sinfonia colleagues. Tenor Andrew Henley was commanding in the title role though, placed in the pulpit as opposed to the front of the pews, he was at something of a disadvantage in the Cathedral's tricky acoustic.
'The Birth of Nicolas' is always good fun, with Britten in his best cheeky-schoolboy mode, and it got plenty of bounce and swing here, with the percussion players, and the piano duettists Eleanor and Amanda Kornas, relishing their sound effects to accompany Nicolas' bathtime.
In 'Nicolas devotes himself to God' Andrew Henley captured the saint's unease as he searches for his life path, and the calm of his eventual resolution was palpable. His journey to Palestine, with its storm at sea, is the occasion for more vivid story-telling. The men of the choir did not always project the text with ideal clarity, but there was bright, vivid singing from Cantamus Training Choir up in the gallery. Quite a few proud mums in the audience turned round to beam in their direction. There was a fine sense of ceremony as Nicolas was made bishop.
Stravinsky's influence on 'Nicolas from Prison' was pointed up by some deft orchestral playing, and the jaunty gallows humour of 'Nicolas and the Pickled Boys' was delivered with gusto, counterpointed by the mothers plaintively calling for their lost sons.
In 'His Piety and his Marvellous Works' Britten divides the chorus into seven smaller groups to tell some of the legends surrounding Nicolas, and here there was an occasional lack of confidence, but the final number, as Nicolas meets his death, was delivered securely, with the underpinning plainsong melody firmly in place.
The four Derby Cathedral choristers - Thomas Hygate (the young Nicolas) and Patrick Cain, Jonathan Dixon and Rafe Travis (the Pickled Boys) - gave good value.
Copyright © 27 November 2019