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Advent Carols from St. John’s
The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson
James Martin (organ)
rec. Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge, 18-20 March, 19 July 1994. DDD
NIMBUS NI 5414 [77:25]

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Robert LLOYD

Drop down ye heavens [6:24]
English Trad.
Lo! He comes with clouds descending [3:36]
Boris ORD
Adam lay ybounden [1:27]
George GUEST
The Lord at first did Adam make [5:05]
Johannes BRAHMS
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her [5:50]
A Spotless Rose [3:22]
Elizabeth MACONCHY
There is no Rose [1:51]
Ave Maria [6:15]
Benjamin BRITTEN
A Hymn to the Virgin [3:18]
Patrick HADLEY
I sing of a maiden [3:53]
Gustav HOLST
This have I done for my true love [5:55]
Magnificat (The Gloucester Service) [6:47]
Benedicamus Domino [1:33]
English Trad.
O little town of Bethlehem [3:35]


As Geraint Lewis points out in his introductory liner-note to this evocative disc, Cambridge is synonymous with Christmas for lovers of the carol service. The broadcast of the Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols from King’s College is for many the true start of the Christmas celebrations proper, whilst the Advent Service from St. John’s College, although perhaps not quite as well known, is no less atmospheric. It marks the very beginning of the gradual build-up of excitement and preparation for the big day.


Nimbus’s celebration of the St. John’s Advent Service is not a live recording of the service itself. In fact it was recorded in the most un-Christmas like months of March and July. It does however seek to re-create the main elements of the service, with the various carols and motets interspersed with lessons and readings that although somewhat curtailed (the congregational elements of the service are also entirely absent) lends a feeling of authenticity to proceedings and preserves the essential character of the full service.


Even on a CD recording such as this there is also something of the sense of history that pervades the service evident, a feeling that adds much to a tradition that extends back many hundreds of years in its origins. Dr. George Guest, sadly no longer with us and director of the Choir of St. Johns for the forty year period from 1951-1991, reads one of the Lessons whilst his haunting carol The Lord at first Did Adam make, is one of the highlights of the music.      


Elsewhere, Richard Lloyd’s gently ethereal Drop down ye heavens with its combination of distant boys voices and full choir and organ makes for an atmospheric opening to the service. Elizabeth Maconchy’s setting of There is no rose is preceded by Howells’ exquisite A Spotless Rose, whilst Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a maiden, Britten’s youthful A Hymn to the Virgin and Holst’s This have I done for my true love, the latter a miracle of imagination in its scoring over eleven verses, are all beautifully sung by the choir under Christopher Robinson’s immensely experienced direction.


There is also no shortage of staple favourites including the Boris Ord setting of Adam lay ybounden. Ord will always be inextricably associated with the King’s College Choir. This is a full blooded account of the familiar advent hymn, Lo! He comes with clouds descending. In conclusion there is O little town of Bethlehem.


As a winter-warming and haunting introduction to the Christmas season, recordings come no better than this, especially when sung with the heartfelt sincerity of the St. John’s Choristers.

Christopher Thomas







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