Once the choir of King’s College Cambridge established their own record label, I guess it was inevitable that they would eventually bring out a disc of Christmas carols. Their heritage in this genre is second to none, after all, and the back of the CD case describes them as “the choir most synonymous with Christmas”. Well, here it is and, I’m pleased to report, it’s very good indeed. It ticks the significant box of being a safe recommendation for anybody on the mass market who wants a CD of popular Christmas carols, and it is, in fact, about as safe as they come. That’s not a criticism: if you cast your eye down the track-listing, it contains just about any carol you would want from such a disc.
The programme feels, in fact, as though it has been lifted from one of their traditional Christmas Eve services, but shorn of the readings and prayers and bulked out with some extras. It begins and ends with the carols that always serve that purpose on Christmas Eve. It moves through the same themes as the lessons: beginning with meditations on Eden, progressing through Gabriel’s Message to the manger, the Shepherds and the Three Kings. That’s no doubt intentional, and gives the programme sufficient harmony to make sense in one listen-through, as well as making it satisfying to dip in and out.
Equally importantly, though, this is Stephen Cleobury’s chance to put his own stamp on such a recording. Arguably, the standard disc for this sort of repertoire up to this point has been the one recorded by King’s for EMI under David Willcocks and Philip Ledger. Cleobury, who has been with the choir for 32 years now, has to my knowledge never put together such a disc, and it is good that he has had the opportunity to do so. It showcases the tight, focused sound that the choir has developed under him, and also features some of his own descants that will be familiar to radio listeners. The sound also has more bloom than on the earlier EMI CD with more space for the voices to breathe in the chapel’s unique acoustic. I found the sound on the EMI disc so close as to be a little obtrusive, lending almost a hint of a warble, but there is no such danger here. You don’t get the brass arrangements for the final two carols that you get on Willcocks’ recording, but not everyone will think that’s a bad thing.
In short, what’s not to like? It’s worthy of a place on any Christmas shelf, and would make a first rate gift for someone who wants a one-stop collection of Christmas music. The price helps, too.
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
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