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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)
rec. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, 16-18, 20 March 2014.
Sung texts included
KING'S COLLEGE KGS0007 [78:11]

Carols from King’s
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Douglas Tang, Tom Etheridge (organ)
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 13-15 December 2013.
Booklet with notes, texts and translations included
Region: 0 (all)
Format: NSTC
Screen ratio: 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo

You may well be confused. This Christmas the King’s College label has released, with identical cover and only one word difference in title, a DVD of Carols from Kings and CD of Favourite Carols from Kings. The DVD was recorded in December 2013 and is the BBC TV broadcast of Christmas Eve that year. It shows the Service of Seven Lessons and Carols by which King’s College Choir is best known worldwide — a ‘tradition’ which only began in 1954. This derives from the actual Christmas Eve service at King’s of Nine Lessons and Carols which began in 1918 and was first broadcast on BBC Radio in 1928. The 2010 Nine Lessons and Carols was the first release on the King’s College label (review).

To return to 2014, the CD Favourite Carols was recorded in March 2014 and its purpose is, I presume, to offer a wider selection of popular carols without readings intervening. Given the emphasis on popularity, there is a good deal of duplication, not only of 'choir carols' but also of 'congregational carols, that is Christmas hymns. Eight carols and four hymns are common to both programmes. So it’s unlikely you’ll want to buy both. My task is to point out the differences and I shall also indicate which I prefer.

Putting my cards on the table straightaway, I prefer the DVD. It presents a service in excellent picture quality which puts the carols in the context of a demonstrable act of worship, the structuring of which is clarified by readings to which the carols act as further commentary or contrast. With the CD you don’t have this. Instead you get something more like a bran tub of carols. Favourite carols can also mean familiar and safe. Thus it turns out that some of the less familiar carols featured on the DVD are more interesting. The charm of Charles Wood’s arrangement of Ding dong merrily on high (CD) is that it can sound good sung by a well trained choir of moderate ability. Malcolm Williamson’s arrangement (DVD), with its accompanying Ding dongs cutting across the melodic line, is a challenge requiring crisp delivery and focus. In terms of impact the DVD wins. If you are singing in or training a choir and want to learn how you can do things better, the CD wins.

If you ask me which carol impressed me most, it is the longest, Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium (DVD) which times at 6:10. It's both sustained and yet has an urgent pulse. This text was set by Victoria and Byrd among others. The Lauridsen has the same feeling of concentrated contemplative adoration and wonder yet with a tincture of modernity in some harmonies and demanding high tessitura for the trebles. There’s a similarly piquant mix of old and new in Stephen Cleobury’s arrangement of the 14th century carol Angelus ad virginem (DVD). Its presentation of the melody is light yet lively, its choral backcloth neat but not distracting. Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Dyévo (DVD), commissioned by King’s in 1990, is also very striking - terse yet exciting.

Do not, however, think there’s little as good on the CD. Without sight of the performers you can concentrate on the music more. This pays dividends in the most classy carol, Herbert Howells’ A spotless rose, in the way its undulating melodic line and crescendos and diminuendos convey a rose buffeted by a keen wind. The King’s ample acoustic helps to heighten the effect as does Cleobury’s ability with his choir to make the marking ‘With easeful movement’ mean quite fast. In the second verse the balance between the baritone soloist and choir is achieved with satisfying clarity while the diminuendo and ritenuto at the close of the final verse has a wonderfully fresh edge to it. There’s more atmosphere in this CD version than in its appearance on the DVD. On the other hand, the DVD becomes a more personal witness and experience in that you can see the baritone soloist concentrating on delivering his text. The video director gives you many such telling close-ups of the singers.
Darke’s setting of In the bleak midwinter (CD only) effectively encapsulates the humanity of Christina Rossetti’s verse while managing to stay just on the acceptable edge of sentimentality. Cleobury opts for a few trebles singing the first verse rather than the soloist marked by Darke. This makes for a smooth yet still chill atmosphere but skews the balance of the piece somewhat when a baritone soloist has the third verse. The second verse, for chorus, begins more combatively then calms. The final verse opens humbly before a brief yet beaming climax. It's finely done although King’s generally good diction deserts the boys’ top G as they sing ‘give my art’ rather than ‘give my heart’. Also only on the CD is Cornelius’s The three kings, unusual in that it features a chorale over which is layered a bass solo. The balance between the two is, as ever with King’s, finely managed so that the chorale can be clearer and louder than actually marked and yet still shine forth when it climaxes at ‘Praise, O praise’. Britten’s A hymn to the virgin (DVD only) is creamily presented but its use of a quartet of soloists as an echoing chorus is compromised by not having this separated from the rest of the choir. Indeed it is dispersed among it and semi-chorus rather than soloists; thus the work’s uneasy feeling of Mary being isolated and distanced in a manger even at this defining moment fails to come across.

In dulci jubilo is on both CD and DVD. A testing double choir piece for amateur choirs to attempt, it’s no problem for King’s. The marking is Moderato but Stephen Cleobury very much moves the piece along. This points up its lilting quality yet doesn’t for me totally avoid the danger of making the disciplined delivery a touch perfunctory. I’m thinking especially of the end, where a slightly slower as well as correctly softer close — though admittedly no rallentando is marked — would make the text ‘O that we were there!’ more moving; it’s a moment of great yearning. In the meantime, however, there’s much to enjoy in the King’s CD. The first verse is lustily sung to allow a quieter, more nuanced treatment of the second verse’s repeated music. In the third, ‘O Patris caritas’ (1:23) the interplay between the tenors’ lead and trebles’ response is crystal clear. The eight soloists at ‘There are angels singing’ (2:13) are finely balanced. A black mark, however, for the CD booklet not including translations of the Latin text which alternates with the English one: the DVD booklet does have translations. I prefer the CD account because its contrasts are more marked. In the DVD the passages with solo voices are obscured by the video director showing King’s chapel architecture at that point. Another item common to both formats is The shepherd’s carol, composed by Bob Chilcott for King’s in 2000. This is wafted by untroubled undulations which King’s have the art to make gently serene while at the same time giving effective presence to the climax of the vision of the Christmas star. That climax I find better marked on the CD. On the DVD, seeing the singers concentrating on their entries and on the putting together of the musical mosaic detracts from the overall smoothness of the piece. Another King’s commission, All bells in paradise, composed by John Rutter in 2012 and only on the CD, is a less reflective but more opulent piece to charm the ear.

I need to comment on the readings which, after all, take up over one fifth of the DVD. They are entirely satisfactory in that they achieve the key requirements that they are clear and intelligible; I have heard many readings in chapels which are not. They also reveal a little of the personalities of the readers. Their presentation does not, however have the polish of that of the carols. The choice of readers reflects the spectrum of the scholarly community of King’s College which does not on this DVD include professional readers. Three of the seven readings are of poetry and the reading of poetry requires particular skill. It is possible to have readings which illuminate texts just as their choral presentation does. A thought, perhaps, were there to be DVDs of future carol services.

Inevitably you’ll find some arrangements appeal more than others. Cleobury’s arrangement of Silent night (CD) is a bit too arty with its organ introductions and strong counter-tune, admittedly scored with pleasing contrasts. Interestingly Simon Preston’s arrangement of I saw three ships (also CD), with similarly strong organ involvement and additions to the original, isn’t a distraction partly because the piece itself grows in animation. Cleobury’s treatment of It came upon the midnight clear (also CD) provides a fresh, pacy approach to a hymn that can drag. While shepherds watched their flocks by night (also CD) is smoother yet has a particularly striking descant.

There are pieces which King’s always seems to get just right like Away in a manger, comfortably contemplative with a moving sotto voce final verse. It's smoother on the DVD, a touch more prayerful on the CD. Angels from the realms of glory is bright, neatly projected and a little more relaxed on the DVD. The CD takes you into a more active world of pealing bells. This is the truth sent from above (CD) is one of the most concentrated carols in spirituality and difficult to sing because of its high tessitura. It’s delivered here with great purity and attention to Vaughan Williams’ innovative harmonic practice, based on that of folksong but taken up by later composers with rather more of a jazz feel. This won’t strike you immediately, but what will is how modern the piece sounds. The holly and the ivy (CD) has a welcome spring. The contrast of a first solo and then a duet in the verses before the choral refrain, as well as the use of several soloists, is very pleasing. Walford Davies’ coda, elaborating the close of the final verse refrain, is one of the loveliest calm-downs. It is beautifully done here.
I find that, having declared early in favour of the DVD, I keep being drawn back to the quality of the performances on the CD. Ultimately it's a question for you as to which pieces you prefer to have. It’s not even easy to make a judgement on whether the hymns are better presented with or without congregation. Certainly Once in royal David’s city with its edge and increasing urgency is preferable on the CD. This isn’t really attempted on the DVD where the choir is processing at the same time. God rest you merry, gentlemen fares better on the DVD with a sturdier opening with the congregation. It sounds comparatively routine on the CD. At the end of the day, however, I still prefer to see the performers’ actively engaged in worship in the setting created exactly for that purpose.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous reviews: (CD) John Quinn ~~ Simon Thompson ~~ (DVD) Brian Wilson

KGS0008 ‘Chapters’ List:
1. Processional Hymn: Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-1876) Once in Royal David’s City (arr. Arthur Henry Mann, descant Stephen Cleobury) [3:47]
2. Bidding Prayer [1:31]
3. In Dulci Jubilo arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall, adapted Reginald Jacques [3:19]
4. First Reading: Luke 1, 26-38 [2:28]
5. Gabriel’s Message (Basque Traditional, arr. Edgar Pettman) [2:39]
6. Angelus ad virginem (14th century, arr. Stephen Cleobury) [2:53]
7. Second Reading: Edwin MUIR (1887-1959) The Annunciation [1:54]
8. Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) A Hymn to the Virgin [3:12]
9. Arvo PÄRT (b.1935) Bogoróditse Dyévo (from the Christmas Orthodox Liturgy) [1:18]
10. Third Reading: Luke 2, 1, 3-7 [1:30]
11. Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:00]
12. Ding! Dong! Merrily on High (16th century French, arr. Malcolm Williamson) [1:57]
13. O Little Town of Bethlehem (Traditional, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) [3:03]
14. Fourth Reading: G.K. CHESTERTON (1874-1936) The House of Christmas [2:40]
15. Rocking (arr. David Willcocks) [1:50]
16. A Virgin Most Pure (Traditional, arr. Stephen Cleobury) [3:00]
17. Fifth Reading: Luke 2, 8-16 [1:50]
18. Angels from the Realms of Glory (arr. Reginald Jacques) [2:58]
19. Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) The Shepherd’s Carol [3:00]
20. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen (Traditional arr. David Willcocks) [3:57]
21. Sixth Reading: Ben JONSON (1572-1637) A Hymn on the Nativity of my Saviour [1:40]
22. William KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) Away in a Manger (arr. David Willcocks) [2:45]
23. Sussex Carol (Traditional, arr. Philip Ledger) [2:00]
24. Seventh Reading: John 1, 1-14 [2:10]
25. Morten LAURIDSEN (b.1943) O Magnum Mysterium [6:10]
26. Prayer and Blessing [1:18]
27. John Francis WADE (c.1711-1786) O Come All Ye Faithful (arr. David Willcocks) [4:31]
28. Organ Voluntary: Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Vom Himmel hoch, BWV606 [1:01]
KGS0007 Tracks list
1. Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-1876) Once in Royal David’s City (arr. Arthur Henry Mann, descant Stephen Cleobury) [4:38]
2. Ding! Dong! Merrily on High (arr. Charles Wood) [2:07]
3. Herefordshire Carol (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) [2:43]
4. Adam Lay Ybounden (arr. Boris Ord) [1:08]
5. Sussex Carol (arr. Sir Philip Ledger) [2:00]
6. In Dulci Jubilo (arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall, adapted Reginald Jacques) [3:28]
7. Joy to the World (arr. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott) [3:00]
8. Gabriel's Message (arr. Edgar Pettman) [2:40]
9. The Holly and the Ivy (arr. Henry Walford Davies) [2:48]
10. O Little Town of Bethlehem (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, descant Thomas Armstrong) [3:33]
11. Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose [3:17]
12. Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) The Shepherd’s Carol [3:09]
13. Angels from the Realms of Glory (arr. Reginald Jacques) [3:43]
14. Franz GRUBER (1787-1863) Silent Night (arr. Stephen Cleobury) [3:40]
15. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (arr. Arthur Sullivan, descant Stephen Cleobury) [3:24]
16. Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the Bleak Midwinter [4:32]
17. I saw Three Ships (arr. Simon Preston) [2:06]
18. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (descant Stephen Cleobury) [2:44]
19. Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) The Three Kings (arr. Ivor Atkins) [2:17]
20. Coventry Carol [2:50]
21. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (arr. David Willcocks) [3:41]
22. William KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) Away In a Manger (arr. David Willcocks) [2:29]
23. John RUTTER (b.1945) All Bells in Paradise [4:34]
24. Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (descant Stephen Cleobury) [3:11]
25. John Francis WADE (c.1711-1786) O Come, All Ye Faithful (arr. David Willcocks) [4:29]