Sir David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919) A Ceremony of Psalms (1989) [23:29]; Five Folksongs (1972) [11:47]; Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [1:48]
Arr. Sir Philip LEDGER (b. 1937) Sussex carol (1981) [1:58]
Arr. Stephen CLEOBURY (b. 1948) Silent Night (2009) [3:35]
John RUTTER (b. 1945) What sweeter music (1987) [4:51]
Sir David WILLCOCKS Magnificat and Nunc dimittis [13:08]
Jonathan WILLCOCKS (b. 1953) Where the mind is without fear (from the Gitanjali) (1986) [2:45]
Sir David WILLCOCKS Sing! (Widor: Toccata from Symphony No 5)* [5:47]; The National Anthem (1981) [2:56]
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Members of the Bach Choir; Cambridge University Musical Society; Royal College of Music Brass and Percussion
Ensemble; Stephen Varcoe (baritone); Stephen Cleobury (organ); *Jane Watts (organ); Peter Stevens (organ); Ben San Lau (organ)
rec. 19-20 January and 21-22 June 2010, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. DDD
Texts and English translations included
PRIORY PRCD 1053 [72:40]

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.

John Quinn

It would be hard to imagine a more gracious, generous and effective tribute to a man who has been a key figure in choral music for some six decades.