In the city and university
of Cambridge the Advent service with
Carols at St. Johnís College, given
on the weekend of the first Sunday in
Advent, and the Christmas Eve Festival
of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kingís
College stand like twin liturgical pillars
at the opening and close of the season
of Advent. The Kingís service has won
international renown thanks to the live
radio broadcast of the service each
year by the BBC. The service at St.
Johnís is not quite so famous, though
in recent years the BBC has broadcast
that event also. Listening to it most
years on the radio, I have found it
to be as essential a part of the preparation
for Christmas. Indeed, to be frank,
I find the choice of music usually more
interesting than the bill of fayre at
Kingís on Christmas Eve. Now this Hyperion
CD gives us a good representation of
at least the musical core of that service.
In fact, the selection
of music goes beyond Advent Sunday.
As Andrew Burn remarks in his excellent
notes, "the sequence of words and music
takes the listener on a spiritual journey
that starts in the darkness of Advent
anticipation and continues to Christmas,
the Epiphany and even (in Holstís This
have I done for my true love) to
Easter with its promise of redemption."
One other thing that is worth noting
is the number of connections that are
made in the programme. Thus we find
a carol by Otto Goldschmidt, the founder
of The Bach Choir in London, of which
David Hill has been conductor for some
years. Thereís also a link with Winchester
Cathedral, where Hill was Master of
the Music prior to his appointment at
St. Johnís. This is Judith Binghamís
The clouded Heaven, which was
jointly commissioned for that cathedral
and for St Johnís and which achieved
simultaneous premières at both
places on Advent Sunday 1998. Thereís
a St. Johnís connection with Herbert
Howells, who was acting organist there
during World War II and who became an
honorary fellow of the college in 1966.
The pieces by John Rutter and Francis
Pott were written for St. Johnís choir.
Finally itís good to find David Hillís
distinguished predecessor, Christopher
Robinson represented by his telling
descant for Wesleyís majestic hymn,
Lo! He comes with clouds descending.
We are summoned by
the tolling of the College bell. Then
in the ante-chapel the Advent Prose,
Rorate cæli is sung. The
choir processes to the quire stalls
singing O come, O come, Emmanuel.
As I recall, at the Advent Sunday
service proper this is a congregational
hymn, accompanied by full organ and
part of me misses that stirring sound.
Instead the choir is unaccompanied until
the organ joins them for the last verse.
Then we hear the first
of the seven "Great ĎOí" antiphons.
During the last week of Advent each
of these is sung in turn at Evensong
or Vespers before and after the Magnificat.
Andrew Burn draws on the researches
of Dr. Mary Berry to tell us that in
monastic communities there was a definite
pecking order according to which the
first antiphon would have been sung
by the Abbot, the second by the Prior
and so on. In the light of this fascinating
information, which was new to me, I
rather wish that David Hill had allotted
a different singer to act as cantor
for each antiphon. As it is, tenor Peter
Morton intones them all, and very good
he is too.
These antiphons occur
at intervals throughout the remainder
of the programme, coming in between
a splendid selection of carols. Otto
Goldschmidtís offering is a lovely,
fluent little piece and itís beautifully
sung by Hillís choir. They also give
a winning account of Howellsí A Spotless
Rose. This is a wonderful gem of
a piece, but isnít there a danger that
itís becoming excessively ubiquitous?
It seems to crop up on every CD of carols
these days. It would have been nice
if David Hill had chosen another of
the composerís Christmas pieces, perhaps
its marvellous companion. Here is
the Little Door.
Edward Naylorís superb
and ambitious anthem, Vox dicentes:
Clama receives a vivid and dramatic
performance. Hill ensures his choir
makes the most of the dynamic contrasts
within the piece and the radiant ending
is delivered splendidly. Judith Binghamís
setting is imaginative Ė and very difficult.
However, though the singing is technically
completely secure I did wonder if the
choir was not singing too loudly Ė or
recorded too closely. Most of the music
is marked mp or mf - there
isnít a marking louder than mf
Ė but it rarely sounds that quiet in
this performance. I readily acknowledge
that the fearsome demands of tessitura
made on the trebles and tenors in particular
make quiet singing very difficult but
one consequence is that the important
organ part is often inaudible. This
is a pity since Binghamís restless,
unquiet music is well worth hearing.
Having criticised the dynamics, however,
I must add that the choir copes excellently
with the very difficult, dense chromatic
John Rutter inhabits
a very different musical world, of course.
Iíve long thought that There is a
flower is one of the most effective
of his carols. The undulating melody
is memorable and disarming and the choir
does the carol splendidly. They also
rise superbly to the different and even
greater challenges of Holstís This
have I done for my true love.
This is a magnificent and resourceful
piece. On this occasion the rhythms
are sprung excellently, as they need
to be, and the often-complex choral
textures are delivered with admirable
Francis Pottís Lullay
my liking confirms the high opinion
Iíve formed of his choral music on other
occasions. Itís a fine piece with plenty
of variety, featuring an impressive
use of different choral textures. The
familiar Warlock setting is given in
an unfamiliar guise. David Hill has
combined the original a cappella
choral setting (verses 2 and 4) and
the solo-song version (verses 1 and
3). The organ accompanies the first
and third verses, which are allocated
respectively to trebles and the men.
I have to say I think the result is
unsatisfying, neither one thing nor
the other. For me, the chaste sound
of the choral version with its intriguing
harmonies is the preferable way to hear
this rapt carol and I rather wish Dr.
Hill had contented himself with that.
O magnum mysterium, aptly described
by its composer as "a quiet song of
profound inner joy", is rapidly
acquiring the status of a modern Christmas
Classic. I think itís a sublime piece
though I do hope it doesnít become over-exposed.
The present performance is quite superb.
The choir sustain the long, slow lines
magnificently, something which requires
complete concentration. The tuning is
At the very end, after
David Hillís own exuberant descant has
crowned O come, all ye faithful
the choir processes out to the ante
chapel whence they came while the tenors
and basses sing the Christmas Day antiphon
Hodie Christus natus est. Thus
the celebration of Christmas at St.
Johnís is very satisfactorily brought
to a conclusion.
This is a very fine
disc indeed. Though Iíve expressed one
or two reservations the overall impression
with which Iím left is one of great
satisfaction and pleasure. The programme
has been assembled with great imagination
and the execution is well nigh flawless.
When one adds in excellent and very
atmospheric sound, first rate notes
and texts and translations, it all adds
up to a very distinguished package indeed.
I shall be surprised if I encounter
a finer CD of Christmas music this year.