Nine Lessons and Carols
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Ben-San Lau (organ)
rec. 24 December 2010, January 2011, June 2012, Chapel of King’s College,
Texts and English translations included
Full track-listing at the end of this review
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0001 [52:31 + 58:24]
For many people in the UK I suspect Christmas really starts at a couple of minutes
after 3 pm (UK time) on Christmas Eve when over the radio comes the sound of
a lone choirboy singing the first verse of Once in Royal David’s city.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has begun.
The service began in 1918, instituted by the college’s newly-appointed
Dean, Eric Milner-White (1884-1963). In a very interesting and well written
booklet note Emma Disley tells the story of the establishment and evolution
of the service, giving due credit to Truro Cathedral, on whose service Milner-White
modelled his liturgy. He was quite a remarkable man. He studied at King’s
as an undergraduate, returned there as the College Chaplain (1912-14) and then
saw active service - in which he distinguished himself - in the First World
War as an infantry officer. He returned to King’s as Dean in early 1918
and remained there until 1941 when he became Dean of York Minster, which post
he held until his death. The Christmas Eve service which Milner-White established
in 1918 - and which the BBC has broadcast since 1928 - has remained unchanged
in terms of the prayers and readings, including Milner-White’s wonderful
Bidding Prayer which remains an outstanding example of the use of English in
the liturgy. However, the music has evolved over the years and nowadays presents
a very varied cross-section of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
This pair of CDs, which the College has issued under its own imprint, preserves
the 2010 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in its entirety. So we get the
lessons, all very well read, and the opening and closing prayers. As an inspired
appendix the set also includes five carols commissioned for the service in the
last few years and a brand new one by John Rutter, specially composed for this
Stephen Cleobury has been Director of Music at King’s since 1982 and it
was he who decided, early in his tenure, to establish what has now become a
tradition of commissioning a new carol every year. A few years ago EMI issued
a recording of all the commissions from 1983-2004 and now these five new recordings
bring the cycle bang up to date as it were, with the exception of John Tavener’s
Away in a manger (2005), which the choir has recorded on another disc
The 2012 commission is from Carl Vine and his setting of Tennyson’s words,
Ring out, wild bells will be heard for the first time on 24 December
One pleasing feature of Cleobury’s programmes is that he usually includes
the work of his distinguished predecessors. The 2010 Festival was no exception
and we find settings or arrangements by Boris Ord (1897-1961), Sir David Willcocks
(b.1919) and by Cleobury’s immediate predecessor, the late Sir Philip
Ledger (1937-2012), whose excellent arrangement of Sussex Carol is given
a vibrant performance here. Incidentally Ledger will be remembered at this year’s
Festival when a couple of his arrangements will be included.
Having listened to the Festival frequently over the years I’d say that
the 2010 service is pretty representative both as regards choice of repertoire
and standard of performance. The latter, as you would expect, is very high indeed.
My only quibbles - and they are quibbles - are that the tone of the tenors
sounds, to my ears, a little harsh at times and that the pronunciation of words
by the trebles can occasionally sound a touch precious - listen, for example,
to the way they sing “wonderful” in the first verse of the Rutter.
The only performance which I didn’t enjoy was Villette’s lovely
Hymne à la Vierge. This, I think, is taken too swiftly and the
pronunciation of the word “alleluia”, while it may be authentically
Gallic - though I’ve never heard a French choir pronounce it this way
- sounds terribly affected. For the rest, everything is up to King’s usual
exceptionally high technical standards.
Let me mention a few specifics. Cleobury’s arrangement of A Virgin
most pure is both delightful and effective - though I must say I didn’t
care for his treatment of the final verse of Once in royal David’s
city, which is too fussy. Peter Tranchell’s setting of If ye would
hear the angels sing has a very pleasing - and very English - lilt
to it. I’ve reviewed a couple of discs recently that have included Jan
Sandström’s stunning arrangement of Det är en ros utsprungen
and it’s done very well here - and sung in Swedish. Equally successful,
and in complete contrast, is Peter Hurford’s splendidly joyous Sunny
bank. I love the marriage of the traditional English words and a traditional
French tune in June Nixon’s arrangement of The holly and the ivy.
Two King’s commissions were included in this service. Judith Weir’s
Illuminare, Jerusalem was one of the very first commissions - in 1985.
It’s one of the best and certainly one of the most durable. The King’s
choir has revived it many times over the years and they give it a suitably biting
performance here. Over the years many leading composers have written pieces
for the Festival and the 2010 commission went to the distinguished Finnish composer,
Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Christmas Carol sets words by the composer
himself. It’s a largely homophonic a cappella piece and, like so
much else of this composer’s output that I’ve heard, it features
very beautiful textures. The slow-moving music has quite a mystic feel to it.
As I mentioned, the set includes a valuable appendix which brings the story
of the King’s commissions up to date; all the pieces included here, with
the exception of the one by Gabriel Jackson, are recorded for the first time.
The offerings from Brett Dean and Tansy Davies are not to my taste. Both seem
to rely too much - exclusively? - on effects to make their mark. Mark-Anthony
Turnage’s piece is typically challenging but I detected a lyrical vein
running through the music that’s impressive. I was intrigued by it. Dominic
Muldowney’s Mary features spare choral textures and an important
tenor solo, which is well sung by Matthew Sandy. This is stark music which reminds
us, importantly, that the harsh physical conditions of the Nativity story would
have been a long way from the rather cosy image that’s often presented.
Gabriel Jackson’s The Christ Child is a slow, gently ecstatic piece
containing some beautiful and interesting harmonies. As so often, Jackson displays
a real affinity for vocal textures in this exquisite piece.
As an appendix to the appendix, if you will, we hear John Rutter’s latest
offering, which was written specially for this recording. All bells in paradise
is totally different from the five pieces that have preceded it; for one thing,
it doesn’t confront the listener as some of them do. It represents the
composer’s typical, easy melodious way. I suppose it doesn’t break
any new ground but is that necessarily the point? It’s most attractive
and its inclusion shows us that a well-constructed Christmas programme ideally
should include some challenges, some sheer enjoyment - which this Rutter piece
provides - and perhaps, from the traditional carols, some reassurance. Here’s
a little challenge: you try getting the tune of Rutter’s refrain
out of your head! The piece is to be included in the 2012 service from King’s.
This isn’t the first time that the complete Festival has appeared on CD.
EMI issued a recording in 1999 (5736932)
but that wasn’t a recording of the actual service but rather was set down
in December 1998, prior to Christmas Eve, and in July 1999. EMI subsequently
issued a live recording of the complete 2008 Festival to mark the 80th
anniversary of the BBC’s broadcasts of the service (6860822).
Both of those recordings are still available. More significant, perhaps, is
another EMI album, On Christmas Day. New Carols from King’s (5580702)
that contains 22 of the previous commissioned carols. Where should choice lie?
Well, if you already have either of the previous EMI complete Festivals - I
haven’t heard the album containing the 2008 service - then you can probably
rest content. However, if you haven’t got a complete recording of this
unique British musical institution the choice is pretty clear: this newcomer
is the obvious selection, not least because the inclusion of the supplement
containing the commissioned carols is so valuable. It’s also expertly
performed and very well recorded. The booklet is excellent, though I do wish
the typeface was not so minuscule.
An ideal souvenir of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
CD 1 [52:31]
Once in royal David’s city - arr Stephen CLEOBURY (b.1948)
Herefordshire Carol - arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Adam lay ybounden - Boris ORD (1897-1961)
A Virgin most pure - arr. Stephen CLEOBURY
In dulci jubilo - arr. Robert Lucas de PEARSALL (1795-1856)
If ye would hear the angels sing - Peter TRANCHELL (1922-1993)
Sussex Carol - arr Philip LEDGER (1937-2012)
God rest you merry, gentlemen - arr David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919)
A tender Shoot - Otto GOLDSCHMIDT (1829-1907)
Det är en ros utsprungen - Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954)
Hymne à la Vierge - Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998)
Sunny bank - Peter HURFORD (b. 1930)
Mariä Wiegenlied - Max REGER (1873-1936)
The holly and the ivy - arr June NIXON (b. 1942)
CD 2 [58:24]
While shepherds watched - desc. Stephen CLEOBURY
Illuminare, Jerusalem - Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
Christmas Carol* - Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (b. 1928)
Ding! Dong! Merrily on high - arr Stephen CLEOBURY
Hark! The herald angels sing - desc.David WILLCOCKS
Organ voluntary: In dulci jubilo - Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Christ Child (2009) - Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Now comes the dawn*(2007) - Brett DEAN (b. 1961)
Misere’ nobis* (2006) - Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1960)
Mary* (2008) - Dominic MULDOWNEY (b. 1952)
Christmas Eve* (2011) - Tansy DAVIES (b. 1973)
All bells in paradise* - John RUTTER (b. 1945)
*Denotes first recording