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A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – The Centenary Service
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir Stephen Cleobury
Henry Websdale and Dónal McCann (organ Scholars)
Guy Johnston (cello),
rec. live, 24 December 2018, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

By a sad coincidence, this disc arrives for review the very day that the death was announced of Sir Stephen Cleobury. Reading through the myriad eulogies to Sir Stephen on social media (both heartfelt and hollow) it struck me how he was, in the public consciousness, so totally and completely associated with the annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, that his other musical achievements were regarded as almost peripheral to this one hour-long performance in a year made up of almost daily hour-long performances. Time will tell whether his posthumous reputation will extended beyond his Christmas Eve presentation to millions around the world, but it seems fitting that his death should so closely follow the release of this tribute recording. The tribute is not, however, intentionally for Cleobury, but for the centenary of a great British seasonal tradition and also, as recognised in the booklet, to the former Mayor of Cambridge, Councillor Nigel Gawthrope, who reads the sixth lesson on this recording, and who died in January. (For those interested in voices from beyond the grave, we hear the late Sir Stephen execute with consummate eloquence, the Seventh Lesson on this recording.)

Whether or not Cleobury would have wanted this to be his recorded epitaph we shall never know. But there are occasional moments – a rough start to the fourth verse of O Come all ye Faithful, and a performance of Elizabeth Poston’s magical Jesus Christ the Apple Tree which feels as if it is racing against the clock which terrorises all who participate in live BBC broadcasts (and leads to two items from the service – I Saw Three Ships in an arrangement by former King’s Organ Scholar, Simon Preston, and While Shepherds Watched – left off the physical CD and available only as a download using a code printed in the booklet). But such minor flaws only reinforce the very human reality of this recording, and pay generous testament to both a choir and a director who could make almost every second of a live performance sound as polished as a carefully-edited studio recording. What blazes through every moment of the recording is its unflagging musicality and spiritual intensity; it transcends the critic’s approach to a performance and becomes an overwhelming experience which demeans the empty words of those attempting to assess it on purely technical grounds.

Cleobury was not the originator of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols, nor was he the man who transformed it into the magical annual musical feast it has become. His own carols and arrangements have none of the universal appeal of those of his predecessors, notably David Willcocks, and under his direction the choral tone has a business-like clarity and precision which sometimes seems to push aside the chapel’s uniquely reverberant acoustic. Yet not only did he oversee more annual Christmas Eve services than any other King’s College Chapel Music Director, he added his own stamp on the event by taking it out of the hallowed musical cloisters peopled largely by church music aficionados and sentimental lovers of traditional church music and into the harsh light of a professional musical performance Most significant was his establishment of the practice of commissioning a new carol for each service since 1983 and his willingness to move beyond the usual choir and organ settings to bring in other instruments. For this centenary service, the new carol came from Judith Weir (O Mercy Divine) and included a major accompanying role for the solo cello, eloquently played here by Guy Johnston. Other Cleobury-commissioned carols here include Bogoróditse Dyevo by Arvo Pärt (commissioned for the 1990 service) and What Sweeter Music by John Rutter (for the 1987 service).

The centenary service also included famous carols and arrangements by all five of Cleobury’s immediate successors. A H Mann (Once in Royal David’s City), Boris Ord (Adam lay ybounden), Harold Darke (In the Bleak Midwinter), Philip Ledger (Stille Nacht) and, inevitably and thankfully, David Willcocks (Unto us in Born a Son and O Come all ye faithful). If any of Cleobury’s arrangements has attained a measure of widespread popularity outside the King’s service, it is his jovial version of Joys Seven, included here. He also provides his own harmonisations, arrangements and descants for Nowel Sing We, While Shepherds Watched and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. Other modern classics include William Mathias’s boisterous setting of doggerel Sir Christèmas with its famous final shout (delivered with full raucous enthusiasm by the King’s boys) and Tavener’s haunting The Lamb. Whether a traditional classic, a familiar bit of 19th century tunefulness or something decidedly modern, every one is delivered here with the level of care and attention to detail most conductors would lavish on a Mahler Symphony. Pitching, intonation, balance and blend never falter, diction is impeccable throughout, and the sense of this being not just a 100-year-old tradition but a living, breathing, musical experience is vivid in this magnificent recording.

It almost goes without saying that, in keeping with all King’s College Cambridge releases, the documentation is admirable in its elegance, authority and comprehensiveness, the illustrations provide a wonderful enhancement to the event, and essays from those associated with previous Nine Lessons and Carols services (including John Butt, Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, Judith Bingham and Sir Stephen himself) providing wonderful illumination on an event which stands as a glorious beacon of continuity and calm amidst an increasingly fractious and disturbed world.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: John Quinn


1. Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876), arr. Arthur Henry Mann (1850-1929) & Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019) : Once in royal David's City [4'21]
2. Anon, harm. George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) : Up! good Christen folk [1'20]
3. Boris Ord (1897-1961) : Adam lay ybounden [1'11]
4. Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) : Jesus Christ the apple tree [2'40]
5. Anon, arr. Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1856) : In dulci iubilo [3'05]
6. Anon, arr. Simon Preston (b.1938) ; I saw three ships [2'15]
7. Anon, arr. Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019) : Nowell sing we [3'08]
8. Anon, arr. Sir David Valentine Willcocks (1919-2015) : Unto us is born a son [2'21]
9. Herbert Howells (1892-1983) : A Spotless Rose [2'45]
10. Sir John Tavener (1944-2013) : The Lamb [3'07]
11. Anon, arr. Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019) : Joys Seven [3'15]
12. Arvo Pärt (b.1935) : Bogoróditse Dyevo [1'16]
13. John Rutter (b.1945) : What sweeter music? [4'09]
14. Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863), arr. Sir Philip Ledger (1937-2012) : Stille Nacht [2'29]
15. Harold Darke (1888-1976) : In the bleak mid-winter [4'08]
16. Anon, arr. Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019) : While shepherds watched their flocks [2'54]
17. Judith Weir (b.1954) : O mercy divine [3'57]
18. William Mathias (1934-1992) : Sir Christèmas [1'44]
19. John Francis Wade (c1711-1786), arr. David Willcocks (1919-2015) : O come, all ye faithful [4'23]
20. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), arr. Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019) : Hark! the herald angels sing [3'25]
21. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) : Chorale Prelude In dulci Jubilo, BWV729 [2’37]



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