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Nine Lessons and Carols
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Ben-San Lau (organ)
rec. 24 December 2010, January 2011, June 2012, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Texts and English translations included
Full track-listing at the end of this review
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0001 [52:31 + 58:24]

Experience Classicsonline


For many people in the UK I suspect Christmas really starts at a couple of minutes after 3 pm (UK time) on Christmas Eve when over the radio comes the sound of a lone choirboy singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s city. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has begun.
 
The service began in 1918, instituted by the college’s newly-appointed Dean, Eric Milner-White (1884-1963). In a very interesting and well written booklet note Emma Disley tells the story of the establishment and evolution of the service, giving due credit to Truro Cathedral, on whose service Milner-White modelled his liturgy. He was quite a remarkable man. He studied at King’s as an undergraduate, returned there as the College Chaplain (1912-14) and then saw active service - in which he distinguished himself - in the First World War as an infantry officer. He returned to King’s as Dean in early 1918 and remained there until 1941 when he became Dean of York Minster, which post he held until his death. The Christmas Eve service which Milner-White established in 1918 - and which the BBC has broadcast since 1928 - has remained unchanged in terms of the prayers and readings, including Milner-White’s wonderful Bidding Prayer which remains an outstanding example of the use of English in the liturgy. However, the music has evolved over the years and nowadays presents a very varied cross-section of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
 
This pair of CDs, which the College has issued under its own imprint, preserves the 2010 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in its entirety. So we get the lessons, all very well read, and the opening and closing prayers. As an inspired appendix the set also includes five carols commissioned for the service in the last few years and a brand new one by John Rutter, specially composed for this recording.
 
Stephen Cleobury has been Director of Music at King’s since 1982 and it was he who decided, early in his tenure, to establish what has now become a tradition of commissioning a new carol every year. A few years ago EMI issued a recording of all the commissions from 1983-2004 and now these five new recordings bring the cycle bang up to date as it were, with the exception of John Tavener’s Away in a manger (2005), which the choir has recorded on another disc (review). The 2012 commission is from Carl Vine and his setting of Tennyson’s words, Ring out, wild bells will be heard for the first time on 24 December 2012.
 
One pleasing feature of Cleobury’s programmes is that he usually includes the work of his distinguished predecessors. The 2010 Festival was no exception and we find settings or arrangements by Boris Ord (1897-1961), Sir David Willcocks (b.1919) and by Cleobury’s immediate predecessor, the late Sir Philip Ledger (1937-2012), whose excellent arrangement of Sussex Carol is given a vibrant performance here. Incidentally Ledger will be remembered at this year’s Festival when a couple of his arrangements will be included.
 
Having listened to the Festival frequently over the years I’d say that the 2010 service is pretty representative both as regards choice of repertoire and standard of performance. The latter, as you would expect, is very high indeed. My only quibbles - and they are quibbles - are that the tone of the tenors sounds, to my ears, a little harsh at times and that the pronunciation of words by the trebles can occasionally sound a touch precious - listen, for example, to the way they sing “wonderful” in the first verse of the Rutter. The only performance which I didn’t enjoy was Villette’s lovely Hymne à la Vierge. This, I think, is taken too swiftly and the pronunciation of the word “alleluia”, while it may be authentically Gallic - though I’ve never heard a French choir pronounce it this way - sounds terribly affected. For the rest, everything is up to King’s usual exceptionally high technical standards.
 
Let me mention a few specifics. Cleobury’s arrangement of A Virgin most pure is both delightful and effective - though I must say I didn’t care for his treatment of the final verse of Once in royal David’s city, which is too fussy. Peter Tranchell’s setting of If ye would hear the angels sing has a very pleasing - and very English - lilt to it. I’ve reviewed a couple of discs recently that have included Jan Sandström’s stunning arrangement of Det är en ros utsprungen and it’s done very well here - and sung in Swedish. Equally successful, and in complete contrast, is Peter Hurford’s splendidly joyous Sunny bank. I love the marriage of the traditional English words and a traditional French tune in June Nixon’s arrangement of The holly and the ivy.
 
Two King’s commissions were included in this service. Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem was one of the very first commissions - in 1985. It’s one of the best and certainly one of the most durable. The King’s choir has revived it many times over the years and they give it a suitably biting performance here. Over the years many leading composers have written pieces for the Festival and the 2010 commission went to the distinguished Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Christmas Carol sets words by the composer himself. It’s a largely homophonic a cappella piece and, like so much else of this composer’s output that I’ve heard, it features very beautiful textures. The slow-moving music has quite a mystic feel to it.
 
As I mentioned, the set includes a valuable appendix which brings the story of the King’s commissions up to date; all the pieces included here, with the exception of the one by Gabriel Jackson, are recorded for the first time. The offerings from Brett Dean and Tansy Davies are not to my taste. Both seem to rely too much - exclusively? - on effects to make their mark. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s piece is typically challenging but I detected a lyrical vein running through the music that’s impressive. I was intrigued by it. Dominic Muldowney’s Mary features spare choral textures and an important tenor solo, which is well sung by Matthew Sandy. This is stark music which reminds us, importantly, that the harsh physical conditions of the Nativity story would have been a long way from the rather cosy image that’s often presented. Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ Child is a slow, gently ecstatic piece containing some beautiful and interesting harmonies. As so often, Jackson displays a real affinity for vocal textures in this exquisite piece.
 
As an appendix to the appendix, if you will, we hear John Rutter’s latest offering, which was written specially for this recording. All bells in paradise is totally different from the five pieces that have preceded it; for one thing, it doesn’t confront the listener as some of them do. It represents the composer’s typical, easy melodious way. I suppose it doesn’t break any new ground but is that necessarily the point? It’s most attractive and its inclusion shows us that a well-constructed Christmas programme ideally should include some challenges, some sheer enjoyment - which this Rutter piece provides - and perhaps, from the traditional carols, some reassurance. Here’s a little challenge: you try getting the tune of Rutter’s refrain out of your head! The piece is to be included in the 2012 service from King’s.
 
This isn’t the first time that the complete Festival has appeared on CD. EMI issued a recording in 1999 (5736932) but that wasn’t a recording of the actual service but rather was set down in December 1998, prior to Christmas Eve, and in July 1999. EMI subsequently issued a live recording of the complete 2008 Festival to mark the 80th anniversary of the BBC’s broadcasts of the service (6860822). Both of those recordings are still available. More significant, perhaps, is another EMI album, On Christmas Day. New Carols from King’s (5580702) that contains 22 of the previous commissioned carols. Where should choice lie? Well, if you already have either of the previous EMI complete Festivals - I haven’t heard the album containing the 2008 service - then you can probably rest content. However, if you haven’t got a complete recording of this unique British musical institution the choice is pretty clear: this newcomer is the obvious selection, not least because the inclusion of the supplement containing the commissioned carols is so valuable. It’s also expertly performed and very well recorded. The booklet is excellent, though I do wish the typeface was not so minuscule.
 
John Quinn 
 
Full Track-Listing

CD 1 [52:31]
Once in royal David’s city - arr Stephen CLEOBURY (b.1948)
Herefordshire Carol - arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Adam lay ybounden - Boris ORD (1897-1961)
A Virgin most pure - arr. Stephen CLEOBURY
In dulci jubilo - arr. Robert Lucas de PEARSALL (1795-1856)
If ye would hear the angels sing - Peter TRANCHELL (1922-1993)
Sussex Carol - arr Philip LEDGER (1937-2012)
God rest you merry, gentlemen - arr David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919)
A tender Shoot - Otto GOLDSCHMIDT (1829-1907)
Det är en ros utsprungen - Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954)
Hymne à la Vierge - Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)
Sunny bank - Peter HURFORD (b. 1930)
Mariä Wiegenlied - Max REGER (1873-1936)
The holly and the ivy - arr June NIXON (b. 1942) 
CD 2 [58:24]
While shepherds watched - desc. Stephen CLEOBURY
Illuminare, Jerusalem - Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Christmas Carol* - Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
Ding! Dong! Merrily on high - arr Stephen CLEOBURY
Hark! The herald angels sing - desc.David WILLCOCKS
Organ voluntary: In dulci jubilo - Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
COMMISSIONED CAROLS
The Christ Child (2009) - Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Now comes the dawn*(2007) - Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Misere’ nobis* (2006) - Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1960)  
Mary* (2008) - Dominic MULDOWNEY (b. 1952)
Christmas Eve* (2011) - Tansy DAVIES (b. 1973)
All bells in paradise* - John RUTTER (b. 1945)  
*Denotes first recording 

 


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