The ninetieth birthday of Sir David Willcocks at the end of
2009 triggered a good deal of justifiable celebration for the
life and work (to date!) of the doyen of British choral conductors.
There was, for example, a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of Choral Evensong
from King’s College Chapel, which culminated in Sir David conducting
a majestic account of Parry’s masterly anthem, Blest Pair
of Sirens. In advance of the birthday itself a most illuminating
and interesting book, edited by William Owen, was published
under the title A Life in Music. Conversations with Sir David
Willcocks and Friends (OUP 2008), which is
well worth reading; it’s a source of much information about
Sir David and includes many affectionate and respectful tributes
from friends and fellow musicians.
Now Priory have come along with another tribute which, through
imaginative planning, manages in the space of just less than
seventy-three minutes to give us a pretty comprehensive thumbnail
sketch not only of the career but also of the influence of this
remarkable musician. The excellent booklet includes warm tributes
from Stephen Cleobury and John Rutter and I infer from a comment
in Rutter’s contribution that this whole enterprise was the
brainchild of Stephen Cleobury. It would be hard to imagine
a more gracious, generous and effective tribute from one King’s
College Director of Music to another.
The programme is an object lesson in shrewd planning, not least
on account of the numerous interwoven threads. The most obvious
one is the roster of performers. Sir David was Director of Music
at King’s College from 1957 to 1974 – still perhaps the post
with which most people associate him – so it’s right and proper
that the King’s choir is so heavily involved and that the recording
was made in the college chapel. From King’s Willcocks moved
on to be Director of the Royal College of Music (1974-1984)
and their brass and percussion players make a sterling contribution
to the last two items on the programme. His association with
the Bach Choir (1960-1998) was particularly extended and so
some of the present day choir join in those last two pieces,
as do members of the CUMS choir, of which Sir David was conductor
during his time at Cambridge. Stephen Varcoe and Timothy Brown,
the recently retired Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge
were both at King’s during Sir David’s time there. With typical
generosity, Willcocks included carol arrangements by his two
successors at King’s in the programme as well as a Christmas
piece by John Rutter who got his first big break, at Sir David’s
instigation, as co-editor with him of Carols for Choirs 2,
a mainstay of the Christmas repertoire for some forty years.
And finally it’s good to welcome the inclusion of a piece by
Jonathan Willcocks, who was not only a chorister at King’s under
his father but also has since established his own very strong
reputation as a choral composer and conductor. With all these
associations it’s not surprising that Sir David describes the
recording sessions as “like a little party”.
But this disc most certainly doesn’t rely on sentiment to make
its effect. The music is all very fine – and extremely varied
– and the performances are uniformly excellent. Sir David’s
own music is pleasingly prominent. The five settings of Psalms
that make up A Ceremony of Psalms bespeak the composer’s
deep knowledge of and affection for the Psalms in the translation
used in the Book of Common Prayer. Two of the movements are
for baritone solo and Stephen Varcoe does them well, accompanied
very sensitively by Stephen Cleobury. The three choral movements
are most interesting, not only on account of the expert choral
writing but also because the organ parts, played splendidly
by Peter Stevens and Ben San Lau, are tremendously inventive.
I particularly enjoyed the jubilant and energetic setting of
Psalm 98, which opens the set, and the closing movement, which
is a varied and often dramatic setting of Psalm 65. This work
was new to me and I enjoyed it very much.
The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ also impress and I like the insightful
way that Willcocks bases the settings around plainchant. His
Sing! is a fun piece in which words written by Willcocks
himself are sung by the choir while an organist – in this case
the splendid Jane Watts, who for many years worked alongside
Sir David as accompanist to the Bach Choir – plays Widor’s celebrated
Toccata. The arrangement of the National Anthem, described in
Emma Disley’s very good notes as “unsurpassably grand”, was
done for the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer
– and we get all three verses plus assorted fanfares!
It’s only right to mention the carols – a Willcocks celebration
without carols would be like Hamlet without the prince.
His own arrangement and the one by Philip Ledger are well known
and have stood the test of time. The Cleobury arrangement is
new but I suspect it will prove durable also. And Rutter’s What
sweeter music certainly has proven staying power; I think
it’s one of his best Christmas pieces and, like everything else
on the disc, it’s winningly performed here. The Jonathan Willcocks
piece, a very fine a cappella setting of words by Rabindranath
Tagore, was written for the marriage of his sister – in King’s
Chapel – and what an eloquent wedding gift it is. I imagine
that, as father of the bride, Sir David was otherwise occupied
that day for Stephen Cleobury conducted the college choir at
the wedding service. For this recording, however, Sir David
conducts his son’s piece and he obtains a fervent performance.
This disc may be an affectionate tribute, as I said earlier,
but it’s also a highly enjoyable and expertly executed concert
in its own right. Moreover, the Priory engineers have done the
performers proud, capturing their music-making in fine sound.
I believe this is the first recording that has been made in
the King’s Chapel by an independent company. After all the valiant
work that Priory Records has done for the cause of English church
music over the years it’s fitting that they should be accorded
that distinction: they’ve risen to the challenge magnificently.
I repeat: it would be hard to imagine a more gracious and generous
tribute to a man who has been a key figure in choral music both
in Britain and beyond for some six decades. Sir David remains
an active figure as a conductor and the appearance of this excellent
CD gives us an opportunity to wish him ad multos annos.