> Anthems from King’s: English choral favourites [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anthems from King’s: English choral favourites
Charles WOOD (1866-1926)

Hail, Gladdening Light!
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

Greater love hath no man
Sir Charles Hubert H. PARRY (1848-1918)

I was glad
William H. HARRIS (1883-1973)

Bring us, Lord God
Faire is the heaven
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)

And I saw a new heaven
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Like as the hart
Charles V. STANFORD (1852-1924)

Gloria in excelsis
Beati quorum vita
Postlude in D
Henry BALFOUR GARDINER (1877-1950)

Evening Hymn
Henry WALFORD DAVIES 91869-1941)

God be in my head
Edward W. NAYLOR (1867-1934)

Vox dicentis: clama
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Let all the world
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
Plus a documentary about the boy choristers of King’s College, ‘The King’s Choristers’ with French and German subtitles
BBC/Opus Arte OA 0834 D [92 minutes]


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The pieces on this disc have little in common other than the quality suggested by its title: they are indeed English choral favourites, beloved of church choirs around the English-speaking world and used mostly at the service of Evensong, the atmosphere of which this disc partially attempts to evoke. At least, I imagine that’s the reason for the moody lighting, all candlelight and shadow, and only occasionally betrayed by a stray shot of the great West window, behind which is evidently daylight. It’s an admittedly seductive illusion: Kings at 4.30pm, with darkness drawing in on a wintry afternoon, and after Evensong the womb-like warmth of Fitzbillies just a minute’s walk away for tea and chelsea buns… In order to maintain it the cameras have had to stay well away from the Chapel’s amazing windows in all their pre-Reformation glory. Instead we see lots of the hardly less pleasing fan vaulting, and of course the stars of this show, the boys of King’s, occasionally intercut with their senior colleagues – and with their conductor.

No one would ever say that Stephen Cleobury is exciting to watch. The results he gets with King’s and with the BBC Singers are the result of his painstaking rehearsal technique rather than spontaneous insights and exhortations at the music stand. Consequently, the visual results can be frustrating: the accompanying documentary will tell you far more about choral conducting than the main event, which boils down to eye candy for enthusiasts of boys choirs, King’s Chapel and the two combined.

And why not? They sing the repertoire which (along with the glories of the English Tudor anthems) are their staple musical diet and they sing it well, certainly well enough for anyone looking for the eye candy mentioned above. Cleobury’s rehearsal technique and musical style, however, does have its disadvantages, and all these performances are clearly stamped by that style. Tempi are mostly sensible, textures are mostly clear; the maxim seems to be ‘nothing too much’, and when so many of these works have a rich expressive world written into them, exaggeration is certainly dangerous. So too, however, is dullness.

Cleobury’s virtues and defects are shown to greatest effect in ‘I was glad’. He (quite properly) omits the ‘Vivats’ – for Coronation use only – and secures precise intonation and some lovely phrases. The long ‘Peace’ near the end has a wonderfully controlled swell, but it is no more piano than the climax is the triple f of which the choir is more than capable. (The same unwillingness to go to extremes of dynamic compromises the Evening Hymn). How much more the final release on ‘Plenteousness within thy palaces’ would be if delayed a little. But that’s not Cleobury’s way, and if nothing else, he gets what he wants, which are clear, faithful and unexaggerated performances.

An exceptionally carefully balanced recording allows you to hear far more of the rippling organ triplets in ‘Jerusalem is builded as a city’ than you could in the Chapel itself. However, here as elsewhere, the alto line is curiously muted. Who has taken agin them, I couldn’t say, but they are noticeable by their absence both from the sound mix and the visual edit. The opening of the coda to the Evening Hymn has a glorious alto moment: the men of King’s are let off the leash for a bar and produce a marvellous King’s alto sound that I thought had gone for good, like a bandsaw through steel plate – but the camera has panned away and is admiring the moody evening glow. And this is just one example of many on the disc: the choir is four parts strong, and a disservice is done when only three parts are audible or visible.

The two organ scholars excel themselves throughout, but Daniel Hyde is especially impressive in Howells’s ‘Like as the hart’, which is one of the choir’s more disappointing numbers. The tenors are too loud for the opening piano marking and the delivery is a touch po-faced for what must be one of the longest, most yearning lines in all of English choral music. Text and music demand more here than the cool beauty which King’s does so well (and is so effective in the Walford Davies and Harris items); and two trebles make a rare slip, creating a most distressing effect at the final ‘When shall I come’. The final diminuendo is as chilling as I’ve ever heard it and Hyde takes all the time you could wish over his aching, chromatic postlude.

Despite the musical unevenness, this is thoroughly enjoyable. Now if only someone would do the same for St John’s where the chapel may be less immediately awe-inspiring but the choir is a cut above…

Peter Quantrill

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