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100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, Stephen Cleobury
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge 1958-2018.

In 1918 the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was established as the Christmas Eve service at King’s College Chapel by the Anglican priest, Eric Milner-White. It was adapted from the original service of 1880, which was held at the initiative of Bishop Edward White Benson, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. The service consists of Nine Lessons taken from the Bible which are read and do not change from year to year, carols sung by the Choir, and hymns sung by both the Choir and congregation. On occasion, an anthem is also sung during the service, and since 1983 a new carol, provided on commission, is sung. The service is broadcast live in the UK on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve and on Radio 3 on Christmas day. It is also broadcast on about 450 radio stations in the USA. Needless to say, it is a major Christmas event on both sides of the Atlantic.

What we have on this two-disc set is a compilation of carols employed over the years at various Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols services. Spoken texts are not included. You might assume that these performances are mainly about the singing of the renowned Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Well, yes, but the conductor has a voice too of course, a voice of a different sort which has a strong say in the final results. There are three conductors featured here, the current music director of the Choir, Stephen Cleobury, and two past music directors, both now deceased: Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015) and Philip Ledger (1937-2012). Willcocks conducts the first five items here, while Ledger leads the next three. Cleobury, who assumed directorship in 1982, handles the remaining twenty-nine, encompassing the second half of the first disc and all of disc two. These three also provided some of the arrangements, as can be noted from the ‘contents list’ below. As you might expect, some of the carols are sung a cappella, and those that aren’t feature organ accompaniment.

All of the carols on CD 1 were taken from live Christmas Eve performances in the period 1958-2017, and the year for each appears in parentheses below. Except for tracks 19 and 20, all are from BBC broadcasts. The two exceptions were recorded by King’s College Recordings in December, 2016 and 2017. The carols on CD 2 were also recorded by the Choir’s label but were not part of a Christmas Eve performance. The BBC-sourced carols are appearing here for the first time since their original broadcasts. The commissioned carols by Judith Weir and Thomas Ades, are their ‘premiere’ performance. Two other carols, one each by Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins, are noted as “premiere recordings”. There are additional commissioned carols contained on the discs by other composers, including Arvo Pärt and John Tavener.

The King’s College Choir today consists of sixteen boy choristers between the ages of nine and thirteen, and fourteen male undergraduate students at the College whose field of study there varies. As for their performances here, they are excellent: you simply can’t find fault with any of the singing. Naturally, that assessment reflects well on the conductors. It can be said that all three were/are masters of both choral conducting and this choir’s style of singing. Indeed, Cleobury, in a personal note in the album booklet, says, “I have seen myself as the guardian of a precious tradition and have not sought to radically reform it but rather to nourish it”. To that end, consensus has it, he has succeeded.

There are so many attractive carols here, it is hard to know where to begin. Judith Weir’s aforementioned premiere, Illuminare, Jerusalem, conveys a sense of mystery and awe most effectively, quite appropriate for its 15th century Scottish text. I saw three ships appears in two arrangements, one by Simon Preston and the other by Philip Ledger, both quite compelling efforts that make for interesting comparison. Ditto for Mendelssohn’s Hark! the herald angels sing, with an arrangement by both Ledger and Cleobury, each conducting his own and achieving excellent results. There are also two performances of O come, all ye faithful, but both feature the same fine arrangement. Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherd’s Carol is another beautiful work here, its serenity and warmth seeming to transport the listener to a world of tranquility and peace. John Rutter’s Dormi, Jesu has a similar kind of mesmerizing quality, and his arrangement of O Holy Night is beautiful, the descant midway through quite imaginatively wrought. Willcocks’ arrangement of God rest you merry, gentlemen is an attractive, if modest take on this English traditional carol. We three kings of Orient are, by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., (arr. by Martin Neary), is another splendid offering of a carol we all know in one arrangement or another. The Magi’s Dream by James Whitbourn may strike a few listeners as somewhat dour in places, but I loved it.

I could go on and on citing more examples, but let me say that almost all the repertory here has something substantial to offer listeners. I should point out that there’s at least one error in the album booklet’s track listings: O come, all ye faithful is not the penultimate carol but the final one on CD 2, as I have it listed below. The sound reproduction is very good, though less so on the first eight tracks; i.e., those led by Willcocks and Ledger.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Marc Rochester

CD 1 [58:12]
1. Traditional: Gabriel's Message (1958) (Arr. Edgar PETTMAN) [2:34]
2. Boris ORD: Adam lay ybounden (1963) [1:14]
3. XVI Century French: Ding! dong! merrily on high (19630 (Arr. Charles WOOD) [2:02]
4. Traditional: Sussex Carol (1963) (Arr. David WILLCOCKS) [1:53]
5. John Francis WADE: O come, all ye faithful (1963) (Arr. David WILLCOCKS) [4:36]
David Willcocks (Conductor)

6. German Traditional: In dulci jubilo (1980) (Arr. Robert L. de PEARSALL, ed. Reginald Jacques) [3:36]
7. Piae Cantiones, 1582: Unto us is born a Son (1980) (Arr. David WILLCOCKS) [2:16]
8. Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY: Hark! the herald angels sing (1978) (arr. Philip LEDGER) [3:46]
Philip Ledger (Conductor)

9. Judith WEIR: Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985) [2:30]
10. Traditional: The holly and the ivy (1994) (Arr. Henry Walford DAVIES) [2:35]
11. Peter WARLOCK: Benedicamus Domino (1994) [1:11]
12. Traditional: I saw three ships (1994) (Arr. Simon PRESTON) [2:02]
13. Thomas ADČS: The Fayrfax Carol (1997) [4:22]
14. John GARDNER: Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1997) [2:17]
15. Carl RÜTTI: I wonder as I wander (2000) [1:48]
16. Bob CHILCOTT: The Shepherds’ Carol (2001) [2:53]
17. John RUTTER: Dormi, Jesu (2007) [4:28]
18. Arvo PÄRT: Bogoróditse Djévo (2007) [1:08]
19. Michael BERKELEY: This Endernight (2016) [4:07]
20. Huw WATKINS: Carol Eliseus (2017) [2:20]
21. Henry John GAUNTLETT & A.H. MANN: Once in royal David's city (2017) (Desc. Stephen Cleobury) [4:23]
Stephen Cleobury (Conductor)
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, 1958-2017 (tracks 1-18); December 2016 & 2017 (tracks 19 & 20)

CD 2 [48:30]
1. Adolfe ADAM: O Holy Night (Arr. John Rutter) [5:38]
2. Traditional: The Linden Tree Carol (Arr. Stephen Cleobury) [3:04]
3. John TAVENER: The Lamb [3:39]
4. English Traditional: God rest you merry, gentlemen (Arr. David Willcocks) [3:39]
5. Hector BERLIOZ: The Shepherds’ Farewell From L'Enfance du Christ [4:03]
6. Traditional: I saw three ships (Arr. Philip Ledger) [1:50]
7. John Henry HOPKINS, Jr.: We three kings of Orient are (Arr. Martin NEARY) [3:07]
8. Francis JACKSON: Can I not syng but hoy? [3:10]
9. James WHITBOURN: The Magi's Dream [3:29]
10. John JOUBERT: There Is No Rose [2:12]
11. Richard ELFYN-JONES: Adam's Fall [3:15]
12. Johann Sebastian BACH: How shall I fitly meet Thee? [1:07]
13. R.O. MORRIS: Love came down at Christmas (Arr. Stephen Cleobury) [1:17]
14. Johann Sebastian BACH: Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light [1:15]
15. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Hark! The herald angels sing (Desc. Stephen Cleobury) [3:11]
16. John Francis WADE: O Come, All Ye Faithful (Arr. David Willcocks) [4:29]
Stephen Cleobury (Conductor)
rec. Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge 20 March 2014, 12 January & 12-13 July, 2018


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