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George Malcolm’s training had produced a singular timbre in the boys’ choir quite different from the bland tone of the ‘cathedral’ tradition. This timbre, which had the ‘edge’ of a wind instrument, allowed Britten to use the voice parts in an instrumental manner that is as refreshing as it is delightful. The work involves much organization of motifs; for example the Kyrie begins with an inversion of the Gloria’s plainsong intonation and is an impassioned plea for peace. The Gloria is set in a lively 7/8 rhythm first heard in the organ pedals before being taken up by the singers. The plainsong phrase is punctuated by bar-long chords and there is an interesting flowing scalewise tune heard first at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’.
The bell-like Sanctus is a marvellous example of Britten’s aural imagination with its climactic ‘Hosanna’, and the preceding passage of triplets at ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ written so knowingly for a cathedral acoustic. The following Benedictus immediately establishes a profoundly moving mood of quiet fervour before the final outburst of ‘Hosanna’. The Agnus Dei is an agonized prayer for peace in which the voices’ short phrases are pitted against an insistent ostinato pedal and dissonant chords from the organ’s manuals. The work ends as if the world were exhausted in its search for peace.
from notes by Peter Lamb © 1986
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