The premise of this album is so simple and elegant that it's surprising it's never been taken up before. The Medieval and Renaissance texts Benjamin Britten used for his Ceremony of Carols, for treble voices and harp, were all written to be sung, and on this album, the Psallite Women's Choir, led by Nancy Hadden, performs the Britten, as well as period settings of the texts Britten appropriated. The original music for only a few of the carols ("There is no rose," "Adam lay y-bounden," and "Balulalow") survives, but Hadden, following the standard period practice for Medieval and Renaissance carols, matches the texts to other songs and carols. It's an intriguing and promising concept, but it's executed more persuasively in the early settings than in the Britten. The performances of the Medieval and Renaissance carols, many of which are familiar, are cleanly sung. It's not unusual for women's choirs to perform the Britten, but they generally "whiten" their voices to produce a sound that's closer to the straight tone of trebles. Psallite sings with somewhat more vibrato than the groups that usually perform the piece, and while the sound works in some of the carols, it's less effective in those that call for solo voices. This little babe, the rocky shoal upon which many a performance of A Ceremony of Carols has been dashed, is, if not quite disastrous, dangerously floundering. The fact that harpist Vicky Lester gets the notes wrong in the bridge between the second and third verses is another reason to hit "skip" when you get to this track. In spite of the novelty of the idea, the mediocre performance of the Britten, plus the fact that most of the older settings are easily available in superior recordings, this is a release that's easy to take a pass on.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|A Ceremony of Carols, for treble voices (or chorus) & harp, Op. 28|