wed 29/05/2024

Britten 100: King's College Choir, Britten Sinfonia, Cleobury, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Britten 100: King's College Choir, Britten Sinfonia, Cleobury, Barbican

Britten 100: King's College Choir, Britten Sinfonia, Cleobury, Barbican

Festive celebrations as the great Cambridge choir brings seasonal Britten to London

Lorenzo Monaco's portrayal of St Nicolas saving the sailors

Never review the audience.

Thus goes the dictum, so there’ll be no word from me about the cacophony of coughers who conspired to ruin the concert, no complaint about the woman with a video recorder, unchallenged by Barbican staff until the end of the evening, who drove those sitting near her to distraction, and no mention of the damage done to A Ceremony of Carols by the sizeable faction who shattered its charm by clapping at random intervals – an act that may conceivably have pleased today’s advocates of applause between movements but was ruinous to Britten’s blissful structuring.

No, the music’s the thing; which is why the evening’s biggest disappointment was also its mystery – that a concert of unhackneyed, wonderful Christmas music by Benjamin Britten, given by England’s most iconic choir on a bleak midwinter Saturday, should only half-fill the Barbican Hall.

Much hangs on the calibre of the soloist, and Gilchrist was mesmerising

In conductor Stephen Cleobury’s hands that Ceremony, long a staple of King’s College Choir (as it is of any self-respecting boys' choir) emerged chiselled and delicate but too well behaved. It may be the ingrained habit of compensating for King’s College Chapel’s reverberant acoustic that curbed Cleobury’s vibrancy and deprived “As dew in Aprille” and “This little Babe” of their momentum, but that cannot explain the lack of refulgence before the ecstatic climax of “In Freezing Winter Night”(“The Prince himself is come from heaven”). If the first trebles were overwhelmed by the seconds in places, at least the unnamed soloists were excellent and Sally Pryce brought to her harp interlude all the yearning romanticism that was missing elsewhere.

Fattened out by the addition of tenor James Gilchrist, the vocally secure West London Free School Girls’ Choir and the bright strings and percussion of the Britten Sinfonia, the sound world of Saint Nicolas seemed almost epic in comparison; yet Britten, ever true to his desire to be useful, composed his festive cantata for amateurs to perform and made surprisingly modest demands of scale and virtuosity. For all that, and notwithstanding Eric Crozier’s creakily episodic text, it’s a terrific piece whose simplest moments are often the most striking.

James GilchristMuch hangs on the calibre of the soloist, and Gilchrist (pictured right, credit Opera Omnia) was mesmerising – in X Factor parlance he made it his own, he nailed it, he owned the stage. His engagement with the character was riveting with an intense mezza voce that made “Nicolas devotes himself to God” especially moving. Perhaps inspired by his tenor's example, Cleobury brought greater energy and momentum to conducting this work while the choir, boosted now by its full complement of choral scholars, let itself go to the extent that “The Birth of Nicolas” provoked an audible “oy!”  from someone in the ever-conspicuous audience.

A curious evening all told, then: broadly satisfying yet troubling for non-musical reasons. Conductor, composer and performers deserved better. Cleobury had opened proceedings with a delicate account of Arvo Pärt’s ubiquitous Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten that would have benefited from a few more string players, and after the interval as a seasonal tribute to the late John Tavener he added his carol The Lamb, which prompted unworthy thoughts of leading recalcitrant audience members to the slaughter. Happy Christmas.


Brilliant review! A deft touch with words and presentation alike.

I too an getting really fed up with people who take videos during a performance when they have been expressly asked not to do so. That b..... woman's flashing video was a total distraction and ruined the night. I was too far away from her to do anything myself with disrupting everyone around me. Cannot something be done? Give the ushers a red laser pencil to shine on the culprit?

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