In the Bleak Midwinter - Christmas Carols from King’s
Matthew Martin (organ)
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Daniel Hyde
rec. December 2020 and 25 June 2021, Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0060 [74:30]
I tutted a little cynically when I saw that King’s College, Cambridge had released yet another Christmas CD. Haven’t we had enough of these, I thought to myself? What, really, can be gained from hearing even more carols sung from what must be the best-known quantity in Christmas music?
I shouldn’t have been so dismissive. In fact, this collection preserves something unique: the locked down Christmas of 2020; and even if that’s not a Christmas many of us would willingly choose to remember, it helped produce some very beautiful music, some of it captured on this disc.
Thanks to the pandemic, there was no congregation in December 2020. Instead, the choir sang in an empty chapel, no doubt socially distanced, and the service was relayed as usual on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve. Spending my first ever Christmas separated from my family, I vividly remember the experience of listening to that service alone and finding it strangely powerful that, hundreds of miles away, my family were doing exactly the same thing as me.
The disc notes are actually a little coy about the details of what is preserved here, saying only that the disc was recorded in December 2020 and June 2021, so it isn’t quite the unique memory of a specific occasion, and there may well be some rehearsal material in here too. I doubt that will bother many people, though. Whether you listened that Christmas Eve or not, however, what’s on this disc is rather lovely.
It’s mostly business-as-usual regarding the choice of repertoire, though with a choir of this quality, a team so steeped in the tradition of English choral singing, that’s no criticism. All the hits are here, including congregational favourites, well known old carols and new beauties by the likes of Roger Quilter and Mack Wilberg.
Two things, perhaps, bear special mention. The first is the acoustic of the empty chapel. Free of the congregation, but still pregnant with the atmosphere of the special occasion, the singing hangs in the air in a manner most unusually beautiful. The unaccompanied moments sound particularly lovely, such as the first and last verses of In the Bleak Midwinter, which I found very moving, and the long Glorias of Angels from the Realms of Glory sound clean and pleasingly precise while still retaining a lovely halo of resonance.
The organ, still sounding wonderful after its refurbishment, sounds super in the hymns, too. There may not be the visceral, communal heft of the shared experience, but every voice you hear is terrific, and there’s something uniquely special about that. In fact, I found the more intimate performances of congregational belters (forgive the technical term) like O Come, All Ye Faithful and, especially, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing particularly moving, and they brought me instantly back to where I was on Christmas Eve 2020 as I listened on the radio.
The second point is how good the choir are sounding under the leadership of Daniel Hyde. Gone is - let’s be frank - the slackness of the late Cleobury years. Entries are all bang-on, and exits are clean, while the tuning is better than I’ve heard them in years. I’ve only heard the choir once in the flesh (in Cambridge) since Hyde took them over, but they sounded then as they do on this disc: galvanized together as a body, following the leadership of their boss because he’s worth following.
The presentation of the disc is very good, too. The booklet contains the sung texts of all the carols, an interview with Daniel Hyde, and a very instructive essay by Andrew Stewart giving the context and background of each piece of music.
So, against my expectation, maybe this isn’t “just another King’s Christmas disc”. It’s a unique memento of a Christmas Eve like no other, one which I’ll always remember but which I hope we never have to repeat.
Previous review: John Quinn
Henry Gauntlett, arr. A H Mann & David Willcocks (desc, Stephen Cleobury) Once in royal David’s city
Otto Goldschmidt A tender shoot
J S Bach How shall I fitly meet thee?
Harold Darke In the bleak midwinter
Trad. arr. David Willcocks Of the Father’s heart begotten
French trad. arr. Reginald Jacques Angels from the realms of glory
Roger Quilter An Old Carol [I sing of a maiden]
German trad. arr. R L de Pearsall & Daniel Hyde In dulci jubilo
Philip Moore The angel Gabriel
Arr David Willcocks (desc, Christopher Robinson & David Hill) O come, all ye faithful
English trad. arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams Sussex Carol
Este’s Psalter (desc, Nicholas Marston & Daniel Hyde) While shepherds watched their flocks by night
French trad. arr. Charles Herbert Kitson & Daniel Hyde Thou who wast rich beyond all treasure
Karl Leuner arr. Charles MacPherson The Shepherd’s Cradle Song
Gustav Holst, arr. Mack Wilberg In the bleak midwinter
English trad. arr. Elizabeth Poston & Daniel Hyde As I sat on a sunny bank
German trad. arr Bob Chilcott Still, still, still
Matthew Martin Prelude to ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’
Felix Mendelssohn (desc. Philip Ledger) Hark! the herald angels sing
Francis Pott Improvisation on ‘Adeste, fideles’