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Favourite Carols from King's
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury; Douglas Tam, Tom Etheridge & Parker Ramsay (organ)
Texts included
rec. March, 2014, King's College Chapel, Cambridge
Track listing at the end of this review
KING'S COLLEGE KGS0007 [78:11]

For many people all over the world the Choir of King's College, Cambridge is synonymous with Christmas, especially through the BBC's broadcast of the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It's perhaps not surprising, therefore, that though the College's own label has not been in existence for too long this is already the second Christmas album to be released. We've already had a recording of the entire 2010 Christmas Eve service (review). This is rather different in that there is no attempt to replicate the service. So, for example, when the lone choir boy sings the first verse of Once In Royal David's City neither he nor the choir are in the antechapel. There's no procession into the chapel itself nor is there a congregation to join in any of the carols.

The programme lives up to the title of the album. Most of the standard well-loved carols are here. Some are heard in very familiar arrangements. These include Vaughan Williams' arrangement of O Little Town of Bethlehem with the Armstrong descant and Charles Wood's arrangement of Ding! Dong! Merrily on High. Stephen Cleobury, the present Director of Music has contributed several arrangements and descants but O Come, All Ye Faithful shows just how durable are the descants by his predecessor, Sir David Willcocks.

One or two of the arrangements are rather less familiar. I loved Simon Preston's perky and joyful arrangement of I saw Three Ships and the arrangement of Joy to the World is florid and exuberant.

In the booklet note we are reminded that since the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was instituted at the college in 1918 by the Dean, Eric Milner-White there have been just five holders of the post of Organist - now re-titled Director of Music. Four are represented here, the only absentee being the earliest of them, A H Mann. In addition to Cleobury and Willcocks we hear from Boris Ord - his justly popular arrangement of Adam Lay Ybounden - and Sir Philip Ledger, whose fine arrangement of Sussex Carol is rightly standing the test of time.

A couple of twentieth century classics find a rightful place here: Howells' A Spotless Rose and Darke's In the Bleak Midwinter. In such a collection it's perhaps unsurprising that the college's excellent tradition (since 1983) of commissioning new carols is not widely represented. It's worth noting that the choir has recorded all of them: most are on an EMI album, On Christmas Day. New Carols from King's (5580702) while with one exception the remainder were included as an appendix to the aforementioned recording of the 2010 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. However, two commissions are included here. One is Bob Chilcott's The Shepherd's Carol - a commission for the 2000 Festival, if I remember correctly. It's a lovely, evocative piece. The other, perhaps inevitably, is by John Rutter. His name has become as synonymous with Christmas as has that of the King's Choir and when you hear All Bells in Paradise it's not hard to see why. The tune flows easily, the music is immediately attractive and the refrain lodges in the memory. Rutter's music is disparaged in some quarters but there's genuine craftsmanship here and also a natural ability to communicate, a precious gift for a composer.

If you want a disc of well-loved carols and one which offers the 'imprimatur' of the King's College Choir then this disc will serve you well. The choir is on fine form, the three Organ Scholars between them provide expert accompaniments to many of the carols and the performances have been well recorded. Personally, though I like all the pieces included here, I find this programme is a little bit too 'safe'. However, it's a generous selection of mostly traditional seasonal fare and if the programme appeals then you'll find it satisfyingly performed.

John Quinn

Once In Royal David's City, descant Stephen Cleobury
Ding! Dong! Merrily on High, arr. Charles Wood
Herefordshire Carol, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
Adam Lay Ybounden, arr. Boris Ord
Sussex Carol, arr. Sir Philip Ledger
In Dulci Jubilo, arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall
Joy to the World, arr. Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott
Gabriel's Message, arr. Edgar Pettman
The Holly and the Ivy, arr. Henry Walford Davies
O Little Town of Bethlehem, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
A Spotless Rose, Herbert Howells
The Shepherd's Carol, Bob Chilcott
Angels from the Realms of Glory, arr, Reginald Jacques
Silent Night, arr. Stephen Cleobury
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, arr. Arthur Sullivan, descant Stephen Cleobury
In the Bleak Midwinter, Harold Darke
I saw Three Ships, arr. Simon Preston
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, descant Stephen Cleobury
The Three Kings, Peter Cornelius, arr. Ivor Atkins
Coventry Carol,
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, arr. Sir David Willcocks
Away In a Manger, arr. Sir David Willcocks
All Bells in Paradise, John Rutter
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Felix Mendelssohn, descant Stephen Cleobury
O Come, All Ye Faithful, arr. Sir David Willcocks