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Carols from King’s
Douglas Tang and Tom Etheridge (organ scholars)
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
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
Contents list at end of review

I enjoyed seeing and hearing this recording on BBC 2 on Christmas Eve 2013 – I think it’s still lurking somewhere on my hard drive in case I miss this year’s edition. Now I can free up the space.

It’s become traditional since 1954 to film and televise the carols which are due to feature in the current year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – a good dress rehearsal for the choir – but with a different and more varied set of readings than the purely biblical selection employed at that service. Here, in addition to the Bidding Prayer, the Collect for Christmas Eve and readings from St Luke and St John we have poems by Edwin Muir, G.K. Chesterton and Ben Jonson.

In contrast to a recording of Christmas music from King’s chief rival at Oxford — Nimbus NI7096, Christ Church Cathedral Choir/Stephen Darlington – see my review — most of the material here is traditional: lots of comfortable old favourites to match the candle-lit glow and readings from the King James Bible, but with a leavening of the less familiar.

In the latter category we have Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Dyévo (‘Rejoice O Virgin Mary’, from the Russian Orthodox Christmas Liturgy, commissioned by King’s in 1990), Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium and The Shepherd’s Carol by Bob Chilcott (commissioned in 2000).

At this late date what can I say about King’s choir that hasn’t been said many times? I’ve followed their progress since the days of Boris Ord, whose Christmas recordings are still available from Testament (SBT1121) and whose arrangement of Adam lay y-bounden features on a splendid 2-CD bargain set of carols from King’s of an earlier vintage (Essential Carols, Decca 4756655) and I’ve especially followed them from the time of his successor, Sir David Willcocks, who mostly features on that Decca set. Many of Willcocks’ arrangements are employed on the new DVD, together with one from Philip Ledger whose incumbency fell between his and Cleobury’s.

I’d regard that Decca twofer as my first port of call for an anthology of the best-known carols – it contains a few less common, too, such as one of my own favourites, King Jesus hath a Garden, with music adapted from Tchaikovsky, and, better still, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. If anything, however, King’s under its current director, Stephen Cleobury, has never sounded better and this DVD or, if you are happy to forego the picture and readings, the CDs listed below offer fine demonstrations of that. There’s actually quite a lot of material on the DVD that isn’t included on the Decca twofer and vice versa.

Are King’s better than their Oxford counterparts at Christ Church? That’s an impossible question and, fortunately, I don’t even have to try to answer on this occasion: the Nimbus CD offers a completely different kind of Christmas experience from the King’s recordings.

I have played this DVD mostly in audio form on my main system and it sounds very well. The deliberately slightly soft-toned picture compares very well with the HD recording on my hard drive from 2013.

Full marks to King’s for providing much fuller documentation than usual with DVDs – no less than a reprint of the booklet given to the congregation on 15 December 2013, with all the texts and, where relevant, translations. On the other hand, I can never see the point of providing DVDs and CDs with cardboard slip-cases that simply repeat the information on the front and back covers: it’s just a nuisance best discarded.

At the same time as this DVD, King’s have released a CD with a near-identical cover, Favourite Carols from King’s (KGS0007 - review), a larger selection of 25 carols with no readings, and the 2010 service of Nine Lessons and Carols remains available on KGS0001 (2 CDs – review and Download News 2013/17). One or more of these should be high on your Christmas shopping list: DVD or CD depending on whether you want the picture or not.

Brian Wilson

Contents List:

Processional Hymn: Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-1876) Once in Royal David’s City (arr. Arthur Henry Mann, descant Stephen Cleobury).
Bidding Prayer.
In Dulci Jubilo (arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall, ed. Reginald Jacques).
First Reading.
Gabriel’s Message (Basque Traditional, arr. Edgar Pettman).
Angelus ad virginem (14th century, arr. Stephen Cleobury).
Second Reading.
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) A Hymn to the Virgin.
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935) Bogoróditse Dyévo (from the Christmas Orthodox Liturgy).
Third Reading.
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983) A Spotless Rose.
Ding! Dong! Merrily on High (16th century French, arr. Malcolm Williamson).
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Traditional, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams).
Fourth Reading.
Rocking (arr. David Willcocks).
A Virgin Most Pure (Traditional, arr. Stephen Cleobury).
Fifth Reading.
Angels from the Realms of Glory (arr. Reginald Jacques).
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955) The Shepherd’s Carol.
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen (Traditional arr. David Willcocks).
Sixth Reading.
William KIRKPATRICK (1838-1921) Away in a Manger (arr. David Willcocks).
Sussex Carol (Traditional, arr. Philip Ledger).
Seventh Reading.
Morten LAURIDSEN (b.1943) O Magnum Mysterium.
Prayer and Blessing.
John Francis WADE (c.1711-1786) O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles) (arr. David Willcocks).
Organ Voluntary: Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Vom Himmel hoch, BWV606