A Year at King’s
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935) Two Magnificat Antiphons [6:07]
Francisco GUERRERO (1528-1599) Canite tuba [2:37]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Hodie Christus natus est [2:28]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) Away in a manger [3:44]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963) Videntes stellam [2:46]
Orlando de LASSUS (c.1532-1594) Videntes stellam Magi [3:19]
Johannes ECCARD (1533-1611) When to the Temple [4:02]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Nunc dimittis [3:21]
Gregorio ALLEGRI (1582-1652) Miserere [13:47]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Agnus Dei [7:22]
Peter PHILIPS (c.1560-1628) Surgens Jesus [2:02]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926) ’Tis the day of Resurrection [5:51]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Ascendens Christus in altum [5:20]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Coelos ascendit hodie [2:04]
Thomas TALLIS (c 1505-1585) Spem in alium* [7:46]
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/*Peter Stevens (organ)/Stephen Cleobury
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge 6–9 July 2009 and *July 2008
Original texts and English translations included
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 09004 2 5 [72:43]

There are several recordings in the catalogue featuring the King’s College choir singing music for Christmas but this is a different – and potentially interesting – alternative, presenting liturgical music for various different festivals in the calendar of the Christian church. I use the word “potentially” because it seems to me that whoever was responsible for this very good idea has slightly run out of steam during the planning process.

As a result, there’s quite a bias towards Advent (tracks 1 – 3) and the Christmas season through to Candlemas (tracks 4 – 9). By contrast Easter and the feast of Ascension get two just tracks each and there’s nothing for Pentecost or Trinity Sunday, nor are any important saints’ days marked. Lent is represented by two items. One could argue that it’s stretching a point to classify Barber’s Agnus Dei as a Lenten piece. Its seasonal companion here is definitely a Lenten piece but I wish something a little more adventurous than Allegri’s interminable, repetitious Miserere had been offered. The final item in the programme, Spem in alium, is included to represent Ordinary Time.

If the programme plan is something of a mixed bag then so too – and this may surprise some readers – are the performances. On one level the singing is fully up to King’s high standards: disciplined and well prepared – though there were occasions, the Stanford motet being one of them, when I felt that the tuning of the trebles wasn’t completely accurate. But perhaps that very discipline and detailed preparation is part of the trouble. Several times I felt that the singing was too controlled, too calculated and lacking sufficient excitement, risk or joy. One such example is the performance of Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est. In my listening notes I’ve written “Beautiful. But is it a bit too controlled? Perhaps some more uninhibited joy?” Further on in the recital we hear Victoria’s Ascendens Christus in altum and once again I felt that the performance, though technically good, didn’t seem to catch fire.

In fairness, I should say immediately that the very next piece, which is also another Ascension setting is much more involving. There’s good bite in the singing at the start of Stanford’s Coelos ascendit hodie and it makes such a difference.

Despite the reservations already noted there’s much to enjoy and admire here. The textures of Poulenc’s wonderful Christmas motet are expertly realised and though my own preference is for an SATB choir in this music the present performance is a good one. The choir’s account of Eccard’s When to the Temple is excellent and it was an intelligent piece of programme planning to position this piece immediately after the one by Lassus since Eccard was a pupil of Lassus.

I’ve commented before in these pages that I’m not convinced that Barber’s own choral arrangement of his celebrated Adagio for Strings really works. The writing takes the treble line to vertiginous heights at several points and although this performance is a good one even the renowned King’s trebles are taxed by the punishing tessitura once or twice.

One welcomes the inclusion of Holst’s setting of the Nunc dimittis and though adult choirs often sing it nowadays, the all-male choir is the natural vehicle for the music since Holst conceived it for R R Terry’s Westminster Cathedral choir. The setting builds from a subdued start and Stephen Cleobury and his choir do it full justice. Another pleasing inclusion is John Tavener’s 2005 setting of Away in a manger, which was written for the College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This seems to me to be a successful modern take on an old favourite and faithful to the spirit of the original. Some may be surprised by the forthright music of the middle stanza but the final verse, which features a lovely treble solo, is disarming.

The programme ends with Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in alium. There isn’t a mistake in the track listing: the performance s indeed accompanied by organ. This is something I’ve never heard done before, though a musical friend to whom I mentioned this says it’s not an infrequent occurrence. The accompaniment is extremely discreet and I can only presume it was used because the size of the choir meant that each part had to be taken by a single voice and therefore a little reinforcement was deemed necessary. The organ is played so softly that I found I didn’t object to its presence. I’m sorry to say, however, that I think the choice of this piece was a miscalculation. There’s insufficient dynamic contrast in the performance and all too often the singing of individual parts, the treble lines especially, sounds weak. The passage between 2:27 and 3:30 sounds particularly tentative and it’s not until the final few minutes – from about 6:28 – that the choral sound has anything like the necessary body. Whether he was motivated by consideration for his singers or because it’s his conception of the piece, Stephen Cleobury dispatches it in 7:46, which is more than two minutes shorter than any recorded performance I’ve encountered. As a result, the music is robbed of breadth. Other listeners may react more favourably but I regretted the inclusion of this item.

I’m sure that this disc will find a ready market and many collectors will welcome the opportunity to add to their shelves a King’s CD that doesn’t consist entirely of Christmas music. I’m afraid I found the disc something of a disappointment.

John Quinn