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A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols: The Centenary Service
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir Stephen Cleobury
Guy Johnston (cello); Henry Websdale (organ)
rec. live, 24 December, 2018, The Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
Tests included
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0036 SACD [81:55 (SACD), 76:44 (CD)]

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge has become something of a British national institution. The service was first held on Christmas Eve 1918 and ten years later it was broadcast by the BBC for the first time. Live broadcasting has continued ever since, except for one year. Last year, with the centenary service in the offing, the King’s College label issued a handsome celebratory set in which were mixed archive and new recordings; my colleague Marc Rochester greeted that release with great enthusiasm (review). Now, in time for Christmas 2019 the label releases a recording of the complete Centenary Service.

The presentation of this set is very handsome indeed. The disc is housed in a hardback book which includes the full Order of Service and reflections on the history and significance of the service by several people with strong links to it. Naturally, Sir Stephen Cleobury is the author of one; others are provided by John Butt, Bob Chilcott, John Rutter and Judith Bingham. The most extensive refection comes from the present Dean of the College Chapel, Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry. All these reflections are very rewarding to read.

It’s worth reminding ouselves of the origins of the service. The service was instigated by Eric Milner-White (1884-1961). Milner-White had been an undergraduate at King’s and, after ordination as an Anglican priest, one of his earliest appointments was as Chaplain to the College from 1912. During World War I he served with distinction as an army chaplain. He returned to King’s, this time as Dean, in early 1918, serving the College in that role until 1941. He then moved to York Minster as Dean, a post he occupied until his death. Milner-White did not specifically design the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Instead, he adapted a liturgy which had been devised in 1880 by the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson (1829-1896). The present day choir of Truro Cathedral reconstructed Benson’s service just a few years ago (review). Milner-White’s adaptation for King’s involved changes to both the readings and the music. Most significantly of all, though, he wrote a Bidding Prayer which is surely one of the most majestic and memorable prayers in the Anglican liturgy. Dr Cherry, who read the prayer during the 2018 service, comments on it in detail and with evident admiration. In particular, he notes that Milner-White’s prayer included a prominent mention of the dead, something which he describes as “an audacious addition at the time”. Milner-White’s deeply moving reference to “those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light” was a very specific remembrance of all those who lay in graves on the battlefields of France (where Milner-White had served) and elsewhere. I readily admit that Milner-White’s great prayer never fails to move me deeply and I was interested to discover from his reflection in the booklet that it has the same effect on John Rutter. It’s appropriate to recall the origins of this liturgy and other facets of it such as the deliberate involvement of “town and gown” in the readings: Milner-White intended this service to be much more than “just” a carol service, and so it remains to this day.

Among the other reflections, Bob Chilcott looks back on his involvement in the service – as a treble, later as a tenor and, later still, as a composer – so does John Butt who, as an Organ Scholar, played at two of these Christmas Eve services. Judith Bingham writes about her involvement as one of the commissioned composers (in 2004). Sir Stephen Cleobury makes reference to these commissions, and rightly so because that’s one of his great legacies to King’s. The commissions are all listed in the booklet, all 39 of them (it’s sometimes forgotten that in 2007 there were two commissions, one of them a joint commission to Sir David Willcocks and Sir Philip Ledger, Sir Stephen’s immediate predecessors.)

The programme that Cleobury selected for the Centenary service was beautifully balanced. There was recognition both of Willcocks and Ledger as well as two earlier organists of Kings, A H Mann and Boris Ord. Several tried and trusted staples of previous programmes were rightly included, as well as a judicious selection from the long list of commissioned pieces.

By tradition, and in order to combat nerves, several choristers rehearse that crucial, exposed opening solo that begins Once in royal David's City and then just before the service begins the Director of Music beckons one of them forward. In 2018 the finger pointed at George Hill and he carries out his assignment with aplomb, singing confidently and clearly. Cleobury’s descant is a good one. Jesus Christ the apple tree is an old favourite and it’s well done here. Some performances I’ve heard are a bit too smooth, so I like the cultured yet robust singing of the King’s trebles.

You may have wondered why two timings are given in the header to this review. Due to “technical limitations” it was necessary to omit two items from the CD layer, though you can hear them on the SACD layer. One of the pieces not included on the CD is Simon Preston’s arrangement of I saw three ships. It’s a good arrangement and perhaps it’s no surprise that the organ part is very interesting. The other omission from the CD is While shepherds watched their flocks by night.

Howells’ A Spotless Rose was first heard at King’s as long ago as 1929. Here it receives a wonderfully poised performance which includes an admirable solo from bass Charlie Baigent. I was delighted to find that Cleobury’s own arrangement of Joys Seven was included. I think I’m right in recalling that he introduced it fairly soon after his arrival at King’s and I’ve always liked it very much. A little later in the service two of the best of the commissions are heard close to each other. Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Dyevo (1990) is an exuberant piece and it benefits here from the natural edge of an all-male choir as well as from the vitality of this choir’s singing. Rutter’s What sweeter music (1987) is the first of the two commissions he received from King’s; it’s a lovely little piece.

I’m still not sure what I make of the most recent commission, Judith Weir’s O mercy divine. It’s a setting for choir and obbligato cello of words by Charles Wesley. Fittingly, a former King’s chorister, Guy Johnston was brought in to play the cello part. The choral parts are in compound time and their music lilts and dances in a most attractive way. The cello part seems to me to be fiercely independent of the choir. I’ m sure there must be a significant philosophical idea behind the cello part but right now I don’t understand it; perhaps it will come to me on further listening. I do wonder if the cello part may limit performances of the piece, though, because any choir wishing to sing it will have to have access to a quality cellist for a four-minute piece. There was a nice symmetry in Stephen Cleobury’s invitation to Judith Weir to compose his last Christmas commission for she was one of his first commission recipients – the splendid Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985) – and, in fact, the two composers who wrote commissioned pieces for this service before her, Sir Lennox Berkeley and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, are no longer with us.

The last few elements of the liturgy haven’t changed in years so far as I’m aware. First comes O come, all ye faithful with the Willcocks descant in verse three – still unmatched after all these years. Listen in the following verse to the sheer fervour at the words ‘Word of the Father’. There follow the Collect and Blessing before a rousing rendition of Hark! the herald angels sing. Stephen Cleobury’s descant tests the stamina of his trebles but even at the end of what must have been a tiring service they pass that test. Then the choir and clergy process out to the majestic strains of Bach’s In dulci jubilo. Senior Organ Scholar, Henry Websdale, who plays expertly throughout the service, provides a distinguished finale with this noble Bach performance.

It’s very fitting that this important occasion should be preserved on disc. It’s a very fine souvenir of a memorable service with the musicians on top form, delivering a discerning selection of Christmas music. It’s right and proper that all of the readings should have been included as well as the prayers: all the readers do very well indeed. The college’s own label has risen to the occasion with splendid production values. I’ve already referred to the top-quality booklet, which is also very well illustrated. I must also say that the sound quality is worthy of the occasion and performances; engineer Arne Akselberg and his team have done a fine job.

This will be an ideal Christmas gift for a musical friend, but buy an extra copy and treat yourself too.

John Quinn

H. J. Gauntlett and A. H. Mann, desc. S. Cleobury Once in royal David's City
Bidding Prayer, Lord's Prayer and Blessing
Piæ Cantiones, harm. G. R. Woodward Up! good Christen folk
Reading: First Lesson (Genesis 3.8-15, 17-19)
Boris Ord Adam lay ybounden
Elizabeth Poston Jesus Christ the apple tree
Reading: Second Lesson (Genesis 22.15-18)
arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall In dulci jubilo
arr. Simon Preston I saw three ships
Reading: Third Lesson (Isaiah 9.2, 6-7)
ed. Stephen Cleobury Nowell sing we
Piæ Cantiones, arr. David Willcocks Unto us is born a Son
Reading: Fourth Lesson (Isaiah 11.1-4a, 6-9)
Herbert Howells A Spotless Rose
John Tavener The Lamb
Reading: Fifth Lesson (Luke 1.26-35, 38)
arr. Stephen Cleobury Joys Seven
Arvo Pärt Bogoróditse Dyevo
Reading: Sixth Lesson (Luke 2.1-7)
John Rutter What sweeter music
Franz Gruber, arr. Philip Ledger Stille Nacht
Reading: Seventh Lesson (Luke 2.8-16)
Harold Darke In the bleak mid-winter
After C Tye, desc, Stephen Cleobury While shepherds watched their flocks by night
Reading: Eighth Lesson (Matthew 2.1-12)
Judith Weir O mercy divine [premiere]
William Mathias Sir Christèmas
Reading: Ninth Lesson (John 1.1-14)
O come, all ye faithful (Adeste fideles, desc. David Willcocks)
Collect and Blessing
Felix Mendelssohn, desc. Stephen Cleobury Hark! the herald angels sing
Johann Sebastian Bach In dulci jubilo, BWV 729