Hymns from King’s
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Tom Etheridge & Richard Gowers (organ)
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 8-9 January/20-21 April 2015.
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0014 [70:15]
We are well used to Carols from Kings. Soaring descants and spine-tingling reharmonizations which for so many of us are the musical highlight of Christmas, even beyond annual outings of Messiah, Christmas Oratorio or Nutcracker. Of course David Willcocks was the supreme master of these, but his present-day successor, Stephen Cleobury, has done his bit to spice up the Christmas musical feast. He’s also turned his attention to the hymns sung in churches throughout the year and has released this disc of Hymns from King’s in association with the recent publication by Peters Edition of a new book of 20 of his hymn arrangements.
Organised in the book much as they would appear in a traditional hymnal – following the sequence of the church’s year from Advent to Trinity, followed by special days, hymns for use at the Communion as well as for specific times of the day, and finally a large section of hymns for general use – the order is muddled up on the disc to create a more varied listening experience, but all 20 are here in performances which no church could ever emulate and even the greatest cathedrals would look on with envy.
In most cases we hear the hymn in its most familiar harmonization, sometimes with a written-out organ introduction – that for St Anne unnecessarily complex and requiring rather more than the average parish organ or organist could muster, while that for “Just as I am, without one plea” does the job perfectly – and with the verses frequently broken up between boys’ and men’s voices, sometimes losing the organ accompaniment, sometimes adding a more elaborate one, and invariably ending with a last verse reharmonization and descant. The idea is to add lustre to familiar favourites, and if the choice of hymns seems arch-traditional (nothing here will be strange to adherents of The English Hymnal or Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised) then the need to revisit them and inject new interest in jaded favourites is understandable.
The recording, we are told, was made by candlelight in the choir stalls of King’s College Chapel, and this may or may not be why there is a warm and comforting glow about it. Certainly the choir seems relaxed and thoroughly in its element, gracefully wafting through the hymns with the minimum of apparent effort. As ever, the sound is lovely and the recording quality is suitably atmospheric, and if you need a moment of calm in a hectic life, I can think of no greater panacea than to listen to the deeply affectionate account of that undying favourite, “Abide With Me” in a hugely sensitive arrangement; one of the true highlights on this disc.
Other highlights for me are a stirring descant to the majestic Lasst uns Erfreuen (“All creatures of our God and King”), a delightfully buoyant version of Handel’s famous tune from Judas Maccabaeus (“Thine be the Glory”) and a highly distinguished version of Veni Emmanuel (which differs slightly from the published version). Some others seem unnecessarily fussy and possibly detract from the original. There is rather too much going on in the final verse of “Angel Voices”, while some of the harmonies for the last verse of Blaenwern seem self-consciously wayward. A few seem so little touched by the hand of Cleobury that one wonders why he bothered; “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” appears almost exactly as in Ancient and Modern Revised but with a few harmonic twists added to the final verse, while Johann Crüger’s great hymn tune Nun Danket is reharmonized in the last verse so much in the spirit of Bach that it seems completely familiar to our ears.
One or two take on an almost oratorio-like character, the verses running as a kind of continuous flow each characterized by a slightly modified treatment. This works superbly for “Come, ye thankful people” but I am not sure that the overlapping verses and the rhythmic modifications to “Christians Awake” make it feasible for congregational singing, even if, on a musical level, one can only admire the Mendelssohnian intricacies of Cleobury’s arrangement.
There are those who bristle at any attempt to modify traditional hymnody even to the addition of small harmonic changes and descants, while there are those whose interest in hymnody is kept alive purely through the tantalising changes brought about in a new arrangement. Whatever your view, however, the one abiding truth in this CD is the fact that you are unlikely ever to hear these – or any - hymns sung so perfectly elsewhere. Every word is delivered with impeccable clarity, every vowel deliciously enunciated, every consonant precisely and unfussily placed. Musical phrases are not allowed to interrupt the flow of the words – that familiar end of line break in mid-sentence is nowhere to be found here – and musical lines are nurtured with infinite care. There is no excess of colour or emotion – the words are allowed to speak (or rather sing) for themselves – and what variety there is comes in the arrangements themselves not in the singing, which is, to a fault, unpretentious.
I do not like all of the arrangements, I am happy with many of them, and a few I absolutely adore. But as a celebration of great hymn singing this disc is an absolutely priceless gem.
Previous review: Simon Thompson
1. Thine be the glory [MACCABAEUS] G F Handel
2. Alleluya, sing to Jesus [HYFRYDOL] Richard Huw Pritchard
3. Angel-voices ever singing [ANGEL VOICES] E G Monk
4. All creatures of our God and King [LASST UND ERFREUEN] R Vaughan Williams,
5. Love Divine, all loves excelling [BLAENWERN] William Rowlands
6. Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven [PRAISE MY SOUL] John Goss
7. Now thank we all our God [NUN DANKET ALLE GOTT] Johann Crüger
8. Glorious things of thee are spoken [ABBOT’S LEIGH] Cyril Vincent Taylor
9. Let all mortal flesh keep silence [PICARDY] French carol melody (Chanson Populaires, Vol. 4)
10. Jesus Christ is risen today [EASTER HYMN] Adapted from Lyra Davidica
11. Lord of all hopefulness [SLANE] Traditional Irish, harm. Erik Routley
12. Christians, awake, salute the happy morn [YORKSHIRE (STOCKPORT)] John Wainwright
13. Abide with me [EVENTIDE] W H Monk
14. As with gladness men of old [DIX] Conrad Kocher, arr. W H Monk
15. My song is love unknown [LOVE UNKNOWN] John Ireland
16. O God, our help in ages past [ST ANNE] William Croft
17. O come, O come, Emmanuel [VENI EMMANUEL] 15th-century French melody
18. Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! [NICAEA] J B Dykes
19. Just as I am, without one plea [SAFFRON WALDEN] Arthur Henry Brown
20. Come, ye thankful people, come [ST GEORGE’S, WINDSOR] George Elvey
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