A Year at Kingís
Arvo PńRT (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) íTis the day of Resurrection [5:51]
TomŠs 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 Kingís College, Cambridge/*Peter Stevens (organ)/Stephen Cleobury
rec. Chapel of Kingís College, Cambridge 6Ė9 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 Kingís College choir singing music for Christmas but this is a different Ė and potentially interesting Ė alternative, presenting liturgical music for various different festivals in the calendar of the Christian church. I use the word ďpotentiallyĒ 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, thereís quite a bias towards Advent (tracks 1 Ė 3) and the Christmas season through to Candlemas (tracks 4 Ė 9). By contrast Easter and the feast of Ascension get two just tracks each and thereís nothing for Pentecost or Trinity Sunday, nor are any important saintsí days marked. Lent is represented by two items. One could argue that itís stretching a point to classify Barberís Agnus Dei as a Lenten piece. Its seasonal companion here is definitely a Lenten piece but I wish something a little more adventurous than Allegriís 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 Ė and this may surprise some readers Ė are the performances. On one level the singing is fully up to Kingís high standards: disciplined and well prepared Ė though there were occasions, the Stanford motet being one of them, when I felt that the tuning of the trebles wasnít 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 Palestrinaís Hodie Christus natus est. In my listening notes Iíve written ďBeautiful. But is it a bit too controlled? Perhaps some more uninhibited joy?Ē Further on in the recital we hear Victoriaís Ascendens Christus in altum and once again I felt that the performance, though technically good, didnít 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. Thereís good bite in the singing at the start of Stanfordís Coelos ascendit hodie and it makes such a difference.
Despite the reservations already noted thereís much to enjoy and admire here. The textures of Poulencís 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 choirís account of Eccardís 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.
Iíve commented before in these pages that Iím not convinced that Barberís 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 Kingís trebles are taxed by the punishing tessitura once or twice.
One welcomes the inclusion of Holstís 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 Terryís 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 Tavenerís 2005 setting of Away in a manger, which was written for the Collegeís 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 Tallisís forty-part motet Spem in alium. There isnít a mistake in the track listing: the performance s indeed accompanied by organ. This is something Iíve never heard done before, though a musical friend to whom I mentioned this says itís 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 didnít object to its presence. Iím sorry to say, however, that I think the choice of this piece was a miscalculation. Thereís 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 itís not until the final few minutes Ė from about 6:28 Ė that the choral sound has anything like the necessary body. Whether he was motivated by consideration for his singers or because itís his conception of the piece, Stephen Cleobury dispatches it in 7:46, which is more than two minutes shorter than any recorded performance Iíve encountered. As a result, the music is robbed of breadth. Other listeners may react more favourably but I regretted the inclusion of this item.
Iím sure that this disc will find a ready market and many collectors will welcome the opportunity to add to their shelves a Kingís CD that doesnít consist entirely of Christmas music. Iím afraid I found the disc something of a disappointment.