Easter from King's
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
Douglas Tang, Tom Etheridge (organ)
rec. 2013, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
English texts included. No subtitles. English menu
Region Code: 0 (worldwide); Picture format: NTSC SD - 16.9
Sound format: 16bit 48kHz PCM Stereo.
Full track-listing at the end of review

The BBC first televised the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge in 1954, though following that first broadcast there was a gap of several years before the cameras again visited the chapel on Christmas Eve. Eventually, the BBC began to televise a separate recorded service at Christmas, leaving the live transmission of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols to radio broadcast only. In recent years BBC Television has also transmitted a companion programme at Easter and this DVD is the programme that was televised at Easter 2014 though it was actually recorded in the previous December.

The television broadcasts at both Christmas and Easter have differed from the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in one important respect. The service on Christmas Eve is built around nine passages of scripture, from the Old and New Testaments, and these readings never change. The television programmes range more widely in the choice of readings: some scriptural passages are read but also there’s a selection of poems and prose. So it is here: there are five scriptural readings, taken from the Gospels of St Mark and St. Luke and these sit alongside verses by the seventeenth-century poet, Richard Crashaw; by his contemporary, John Donne; by George Herbert; and by Siegfried Sassoon. The service is also interspersed with hymns suitable for the season of Passiontide and Easter.

Though the BBC gave the programme the title Easter from King's the music and readings focus just as much on the Passiontide events leading up to Easter; indeed, it’s only the last few items that are concerned with Easter itself.

For the first few pieces the choir is placed in front of the high altar. Though the booklet describes There is a Green Hill Far Away as a processional hymn that’s not how it’s presented; instead the choir sings it, unaccompanied, in front of the altar. We hear only an abridged version of the Allegri Miserere. During the singing of Ride on, ride on in majesty, which includes a last-verse descant by the late Sir Philip Ledger, the choir processes to the choir stalls.

Throughout the service the choirs singing is absolutely immaculate. So, for instance, Byrd’s exquisite Ave verum corpus is expertly sung, as is the motet attributed – probably wrongly – to King John IV of Portugal. The trouble I have with the programme is that it’s all so safe. With the exception of the hymn descants and an effective arrangement of Were you there? by James Whitbourn I believe that the most recent piece that we hear is Vaughan Williams’s Let all the world. I expect that the BBC had a large say in the choice of music and, understandably, they will have had an eye to the viewing figures. Even so, it’s disappointing that the programme is almost completely lacking in adventure; the Christmas programmes, by contrast, usually include at least a couple of fairly recent settings. The most original touch comes near the end when, probably with a nod to the World War I centenary, a poem by Sassoon is recited.

Though there’s something of a lack of originality in the selection of words and music the way in which the musical items and the readings are delivered is exemplary. It has to be acknowledged that, fittingly, a good number of pieces inextricably linked with the Easter season are here. These include the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus – taken rather briskly – and Wood’s evergreen arrangement of This joyful Eastertide, here sounding appropriately joyful. Some of the music may be a little less familiar: Monteverdi’s Christe, adoramus te may not feature in every British church choir’s repertoire and the short Hosianna dem sohne Davids by Bartolomäus Gesius is far from everyday fare. If you don’t know either of those two pieces then these excellent performances offer a very good way of getting to know them. Vaughan Williams’s splendidly exuberant Let all the world is the last piece sung by the choir. Underpinned by Douglas Tang’s driving accompaniment, it’s a great way for the choir to sign off before the closing hymn. Tang has the last word, too, with a majestic account of Bach’s Christ lag in todesbanden.

The sound on this DVD is good and the BBC camerawork gives us a good sense of the candlelit King’s College Chapel as the sun gradually sets outside. I’m mildly surprised that no subtitles are provided – and the booklet is in English only – because one would have expected this release to have some international appeal.

Despite rather safe programme planning this DVD marks the Easter season very well and anyone buying it will find performances that are fully up to the usual very high King’s standard.

John Quinn
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Processional Hymn: There is a Green Hill Far Away
Bidding prayer
Gregorio ALLEGRI (c1582 -1652) Miserere mei
First Reading,
Bartolomäus GESIUS (c1562-1613) Hosianna dem sohne Davids
Second Reading
Hymn: Ride on, ride on in majesty
Third Reading
César FRANCK (1822-1890) Panis angelicus
William BYRD (c1540-1623) Ave verum corpus
Fourth Reading
Johann CRÜGER (1598-1662), arr. Johann Sebastian BACH Ah, holy Jesu
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Lacrimosa (from Requiem K626)
Fifth Reading
King John IV of Portugal (1604-1656) Crux fidelis
Sir Frederick OUSELEY (1825-1889) O saviour of the world
Hymn: When I survey the wondrous cross
Sixth Reading
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643) Christe, adoramus te
Traditional, arr. James WHITBOURN (b. 1963) Were you there?
Seventh Reading
Traditional, arr. Charles WOOD (1866-1926) This joyful Eastertide
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) Hallelujah (from Messiah)
Eighth Reading
Ninth Reading
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Let all the world
The Prayer & Blessing
Hymn: Jesus Christ is risen today
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Christ lag in todesbanden, BWV 625 (Organ Voluntary)