‘Tis the season of Nutcrackers, Messiahs and yuletide oratorios. Once in a while though it’s good to be treated not to conventional fare but something less often heard, a L’Enfance du Christ or, as on this occasion, Britten’s Saint Nicolas. Exact details about the life of Nicolas are shrouded in the mists of legend and time, but what is incontrovertible is his iconic reputation as protector of children, mariners and travellers and also as patron saint of Russia and Greece.

Robin Tritschler, Sakai Oramo and the BBCSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

Britten’s pièce d’occasion, written for the centenary of Lancing College, was in very good hands in this performance by BBC Symphony forces under Sakari Oramo, combining the simplicity and subtlety which the composer declared to be at the heart of his inspiration. Oramo never allowed any of the eight chronological episodes describing the life of the saint to drag, giving the moments of drama and narrative tension their full due but also responding sensitively to poignancy in the writing. The longer section encompassing the journey to Palestine in particular demonstrates Britten’s gifts for orchestral and vocal colour: the percussion, including a bass drum and the lower register of the two pianos, which conjure up an impressive storm, contrasted with the beautifully focused soft singing and the treble register of the pianos that emphasise the relief and tranquillity after the passing of the tempest. Here, and indeed throughout, Robin Tritschler was an exceptional tenor soloist. Clear articulation and the colouring of the voice made the recitatives a particular delight. The way he floated the word “come” in the Pickled Boys was a magical instance of the way every facet of the text was made to matter.  

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
© BBC | Mark Allan

The sixty or so members of the BBC Symphony Chorus, in their first major outing since the March 2020 lockdown, produced a full body of sound, incisive and powerful in the fugal sections which round off the appointment of Nicolas as Bishop of Myra and which then lead into one of two hymns that Britten inserted into his score to encourage audience participation. One of the composer’s masterstrokes is the way he sets the Nunc dimittis as a choral counterpoint to the impassioned tenor solo as Nicolas looks forward to meeting God, the celestial anticipation underlined by rippling piano arpeggios.

How best to combine Britten’s dramatic cantata in concert without stealing any of its thunder and vibrancy? The solution adopted here highlighted intelligent programming. Oramo led off the evening with a rare performance of the short suite Sibelius wrote for string orchestra and percussion based on a collection of Finnish folk poems. Rakastava, wondrously shaped by Oramo with expressive depth from the strings, has a quiet contemplative air to it, focusing minds and hearts on stillness while touched by a weary sense of resignation in the final movement. This came across as an extended lament for the parting of the two lovers. 

Benson Wilson and Sakari Oramo
© BBC | Mark Allan

Inwardness is also a feature of Finzi’s short cantata In Terra Pax, one of his very last compositions. It is a celebration of the sounds of midnight bells on Christmas Eve ringing out across the Gloucestershire valleys, as recalled through the prism of time, but also a reimagination of the nativity set in the English countryside. Finzi makes use of a poem by Robert Bridges to reawaken memories of past Christmases, delivered by a baritone soloist, with extracts from the familiar gospel text entrusted to the chorus and a radiant soprano line for the appearance of the angel. Benson Wilson, Ailish Tynan and the choral singing, both rapt and exultant, reaffirmed the traditional seasonal message: Peace to all men of goodwill.