The first performance of Britten’s St Nicolas was the opening concert of the inaugural Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948, with Peter Pears as the soloist. Originally written for the centenary of Lancing College (where Pears had been a pupil) it was performed there the following month, and has been a part of the repertoire ever since, if perhaps a less frequent one than some of us would like. It’s a signature work for the London Choral Sinfonia, who performed it with the expected commitment under their conductor, Michael Waldron.
Eric Crozier’s libretto was written after extensive research into the life and legend of St Nicolas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th century: Nicolas’ legendary exploits were said to include abstinence from feeding at his mother’s breast on feast days, miraculously multiplying numbers of sacks of corn during a famine, and aiding shipwreck-threatened sailors. He was the ‘original Santa Claus’ not only in terms of his historical existence but his legendary generosity. Britten’s music captures both the sincerity of his religious devotion and the endearing absurdity of the deeds attributed to him.
Scored for mixed choir – the basis of the narrative, tenor soloist as Nicolas and boys’ choir, strings, organ, percussion and piano duet, the modest resources create a surprisingly rich, dramatic piece. When the tenor declaims ‘Across the tremendous bridge of sixteen hundred years / I come to stand in worship with you…’ there is that sense of being gripped by a narrative, with which Britten is so much associated. The tenor soloist, Nick Pritchard, achieved the ideal balance between the intimate confessional moments such as ‘Poor man! I found him solitary, racked by doubt: born, bred, doomed to die…’ and the grand declamatory phrases. Perhaps the best known of the latter is the pivotal moment when the boy Nicolas (finely sung by a very young boy from the Gallery Choir of Westminster Cathedral Choir School) becomes the man, with the tenor’s ringing declamation ‘God be glorified.’ The soloists were admirably supported by the London Choral Sinfonia. The two hymns ‘for Choir and Audience’ were resoundingly sung by all, and naturally the audience was already standing for the ovation.
The work was preceded by settings of various Carols, two of them arranged by the LCS Composer in Residence, Owain Park. ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ was the first of these, perhaps a little ‘busy’ in its orchestration since the choir’s diction was rendered indistinct in parts. The second was ‘O Holy Night’ sung with gusto by the choir and the soprano Francesca Chiejina; curmudgeons amongst us would be likely to prefer the more usual setting of Adolphe Adam’s perennial favourite. James Orford provided blessedly spare organ accompaniment for ‘Silent Night’ and the choir sang ‘I wonder as I wander’ (in Kevin Grafton’s arrangement) with restrained ardour.