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A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols: The Centenary Service
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, UK
Full texts of carols and lessons included
Reviewed in stereo

As I write this notice, I am freshly aware of the passing of Sir Stephen Cleobury after a lengthy illness. He served as Director of Music at King’s College in 1982-2019, and retired this past September. He led the Christmas Eve ceremony annually, and established the yearly Easter at King’s Festival, as well as the Concerts at King’s series. About a year ago, I was working on a review for a previous release on the King’s College label, 100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols, which I gave a very positive recommendation. Little did I know then that the ceremony for that year would be the esteemed conductor’s last. It is no surprise to anyone following this yearly ceremony and various other events involving Cleobury and the King’s Choir that the performances on this new disc are excellent once again. Incidentally, in my review I traced the history of the Nine Lessons & Carols, and thus anyone interested in background information should consult that notice.

There are five more minutes of music on the SACD layer. The CD layer lacks traditional English carol I saw three ships (track 9 on the SACD), and While shepherds watched their flock by night (SACD track 24). The omission of the latter is a bearable loss, but the former is certainly worth hearing for reasons I will specify later.

Those unfamiliar with the ceremony but interested primarily in choral music will notice in the contents (listed below) that the Lessons, or Bible readings, as well as prayers, are included here, a total of eleven non-musical tracks. One of the reasons the entire service is included is that many people follow it via radio. In the USA, it is broadcast on about 450 stations. In the UK, it is carried live on BBC 4 and repeated on Christmas day on BBC 3. Thus, one can only surmise that a good portion of the radio listeners are only too willing to purchase a copy of the full service.

Of course, I will deal only with the musical side of things. Let me begin with Judith Weir’s O mercy divine, commissioned for the 2018 ceremony and given its premiere here. She has had one previous commission from King’s, Illuminare, Jerusalem, from 1985, which some regard as one of the greatest contemporary carols. Her new effort here is a light, rather upbeat carol with a large role for cello, both in solo passages and accompaniment. At certain moments, I sense the cello might be competing with the choir, but yet any hint of conflict that might develop seems balanced by a sense of serenity. To me, this is an interesting composition but perhaps a bit odd, even puzzling. Maybe that is a good thing, though.

The very first track, the processional hymn, Once in royal David's City, is given a very spirited performance. The young chorister who sings in its opening has a very attractive soprano voice and phrases the music quite well. He also sings with great poise in the marvelous I saw three ships, along with another more mature member of the choir. Of course, while we must credit the singers for their fine work here and throughout, we cannot forget that a good portion of their success owes something to the masterly conducting of Stephen Cleobury and his guidance over the years in shaping this choir into one of the finest of its kind.

The unaccompanied carols In dulci jubilo and Nowell sing we are rather straightforward and unadorned here, but the performances are just splendid. The congregational hymn Unto us a son is born follows the latter, and its more grandiose manner contrasts well, giving the music greater impact. Another congregational hymn O come all ye faithful really comes to life here in the third verse with David Willcocks’s very excellent descant. Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Dyevo is brief and modest but effective in this colorful performance. Of entirely different style is John Rutter’s warmly lyrical What sweeter music, and the choir adapts well to its rich Romantic character. Sir Christèmas is given an appropriately vigorous treatment, and virtually all other hymns and carols are well sung. The final track is an instrumental performance, Bach’s organ voluntary In dulci jubilo, played splendidly here by Henry Websdale, who performs all previous accompaniments impressively.

The sound reproduction is fine on this recording, and there is little intrusion on the sound field by the congregants in attendance. The disc is housed in a handsome hardcover booklet that features full texts, many photographs of the performers, and several essays about this yearly ceremony, by Cleobury and by composers John Rutter and Bob Chilcott. It struck me that if this review were published in March or April or even in the summer, it would still serve a worthwhile purpose. While this recording will naturally be associated with Christmas and the Christmas season, its music, like Tchaikovsky’s for The Nutcracker, is not just enjoyable for Christmastime but anytime year round. So whatever the month or season, this disc is fine listening for those who appreciate splendid choral singing. It can now also serve as a tribute to the impressive career of Sir Stephen Cleobury.

Robert Cummings

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Marc Rochester

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

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