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Hyperion Records

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Sacred and Profane Love (c1515) by Titian (c1488-1576)
Galleria Borghese, Rome / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDH55438
Recording details: April 2000
Temple Church, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: March 2001
Total duration: 14 minutes 19 seconds

'The programme is delightful and the choir excellent … this has to be one of the strongest winners of the choral award in recent years' (Gramophone)

'Polyphony's brand of singing, clean as a whistle, rhythmically wonderfully alive, impeccably tuned and voiced, polished yet always fervent, is justly renowned, and on this disc it serves Britten's a capella choral music extremely well' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Musically impeccable, carefully wound and tuned, superbly balanced—a magnificent display of sheer beauty of choral sound' (American Record Guide)

'After hearing their latest CD of choral works by Britten, nothing will dissuade me from the conclusion that Polyphony under Stephen Layton is the best chamber choir in the country' (The Evening Standard)

'A valued possession … highly recommended' (Cathedral Music)

'Polyphony's exceptional energy, technical prowess and expressive flexibility make the most of every word and mood throughout this hour-long programme. This engrossing anthology of words and music comes highly recommended' (The Age, Melbourne)

Sacred and Profane, Op 91
Winter 1974/5; SSATB; written for Peter Pears' Wilbye Consort who gave the first performance at Snape Maltings on 14 September 1975
author of text
various medieval sources

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Sacred and Profane, Op 91, a collection of eight medieval lyrics for voices in five parts (SSATB), was written in the winter of 1974/75 for Peter Pears’s Wilbye Consort, who gave the first performance of the songs at Snape Maltings on 14 September 1975 (and subsequently recorded them in the following year, less than two months before Britten died). Sacred and Profane proved to be the last choral work for professionals which Britten was to complete, although he went on to compose the Welcome Ode for amateurs in 1976 and left the score of a Sitwell setting for choir and orchestra (Praise we great men) unfinished on his death. The medieval lyrics were conceived as a virtuoso display piece for the five solo voices which made up the Wilbye group, but Sacred and Profane has since occasionally been performed by full choirs in spite of the extraordinary vocal dexterity and suppleness required to bring off this highly demanding work in performance: the harmonic sophistication of Britten’s late style requires an impeccable sense of relative pitch difficult even for soloists to achieve, and almost impossible for any but the best choirs.

It would be misleading to regard Sacred and Profane as a song-cycle in the conventional sense since, although there are sporadic musical connections between the eight individual songs, the set does not display unified subject-matter. The composer’s main concern was to create a juxtaposition of secular and sacred typical of the medieval period. Britten chose not to modernize his texts, some of which date from as early as the twelfth century, so a summary of their content may prove helpful. The work begins with St Godric’s simple Hymn to the Virgin Mary, then briefly bewails man’s habitual insanity as a characteristic making him unique in the animal kingdom (‘I mon waxe wod’). ‘Lenten is come’ provides a detailed description of the sights and sounds of emerging springtime, but is immediately followed by a cold windy night signifying the drawing in of winter (‘The long night’). The fifth song, ‘Yif ic of luve can’, presents the intense feelings of love and sorrow inspired by a contemplation of Christ on the Cross. The mood switches abruptly to one of irreverent parody in the ensuing ‘Carol’, where a pastoral scene of a maiden lying on a moor is related in deliberately banal harmonic and rhythmic patterns. In ‘Ye that pasen by’, Christ makes an entreaty to passers-by to behold him on the Cross; and the set concludes with ‘A death’, in which a catalogue of the breakdown of bodily functions at the moment of death leads to a surprisingly dismissive conclusion (‘Of al this world ne give I it a pese!’).

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2001

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