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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
Texts included
KING’S COLLEGE KGS0060 [74:30]

When this CD popped through my letterbox the obvious question I asked myself was: do we need another disc of Carols from King’s? Having listened to the recording and read of the background to it, that’s a question I shall attempt to answer in this review.

The background is relevant. The booklet includes a revealing conversation with Catherine Bott in which Daniel Hyde gives some insights into the disruption caused to the activities of the King’s Choir in 2020 and again in early 2021 as a result of Covid restrictions. Everyone has been impacted by these restrictions, and musicians in general have been badly affected by the limitations placed on performances and rehearsals. But spare a thought for collegiate choirs such as King’s, where membership is, by definition, time-limited. In the case of the choristers, they’ll be members of the choir for just a few years until their voices break; as for the Choral Scholars, most of them will just have their three undergraduate years as part of the choir. Covid ripped the heart out of those singers’ time with the Kings’ choir. Although the performance standard throughout this CD is extremely high, the disruption is bound to have impacted the choir’s development, at least in the short term.

One of the most telling musical casualties of the Covid lockdowns was the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which takes place in the college chapel on Christmas Eve and which, since 1928, has been broadcast round the world by the BBC. In 2020 it was obvious that it wouldn’t be possible to have a congregation present but at least it was hoped the service itself might be able to go ahead behind closed doors. Nonetheless, as a precaution a dress rehearsal took place earlier in December, which was recorded. In the event, it was necessary to cancel the Christmas Eve service altogether and the dress rehearsal was broadcast instead. On this CD we have the music from that broadcast service together with four additional items which were recorded in June 2021. So, this recording is something of a unique document. As I write this review, in November 2021, we hope that there will be no Covid disruption to the King’s service – or to any other church service in the UK – this coming Christmas. Let us hope that the curtailment of Christmas services and concerts in 2020 will never happen again.

The musical contents of the 2020 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols departed slightly from tradition. Usually, at the end of the service two congregational carols, O come, all ye faithful and Hark! the herald angels sing, are sung either side of the final blessing. Daniel Hyde explains that he thought a more reflective tone would be appropriate in the year of Covid (my phrase, not his), so O come, all ye faithful was moved to a place earlier in the liturgy and instead the choir sang Bob Chilcott’s gentle, warmly harmonised arrangement of Still, still, still before the blessing; this provides a suitable moment of repose.

You’ll also notice two other important differences. One, obviously, is the absence of a congregation to join in the big hymns. Though the choir sings these hymns well, something of the sense of grandeur and community is missing. Also, it must be said that seven verses of O come, all ye faithful is a bit too much of a good thing; there would have been a case for omitting perhaps the fourth and fifth verses. However, by way of compensation we hear not one but two descants, both “borrowed” from St John’s College, Cambridge. I suspect it’s the Christopher Robinson descant that adorns verse six while David Hill’s descant – together with a thrilling organ sound – enriches the last verse. The other difference concerns the acoustic. Normally, the packed congregation absorbs a lot of sound but on this occasion that doesn’t happen. Furthermore, I understand that all the chairs had been removed so the chapel is much more empty than usual, meaning that the music resonates not just off the walls and ceiling but off the floor as well. As a result, there’s much more of a sense of space round the voices and, in several items, more of a sense of intimacy than you may have experienced on previous CDs of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

A glance at the track listing confirms that there are many tried and trusted pieces on the programme. I’ll limit what I have to say about those items. Without exception they are immaculately performed. Even though I don’t believe that Once in royal David’s city was sung, as is usual, in procession, we still hear the famous lone choirboy in verse one. In 2020 the honour fell to Samuel Hodson, who does a fine job. In a lovely account of Darke’s classic In the bleak midwinter special mention must be made of tenor Owen Elsley who gives one of the best renditions that I can recall hearing of the solo in verse three.

We’re very accustomed to hearing The Sussex Carol in the fine arrangement by Sir David Willcocks; this time it’s a pleasant change to hear Vaughan Williams’ version. Thou who wast rich beyond all treasure turns out to be an arrangement – employing English words - of the lovely French carol Quelle est cette odeur agréable? I was delighted to find Leuner’s The Shepherd’s Cradle Song on the programme: it takes me back to the days when I sang it as a member of our school choir; I’ve loved it ever since. Roger Quilter’s An Old Carol is his setting, made in 1923, of I sing of a maiden, sung here by unison trebles with organ. In his excellent notes, Andrew Stewart hits the nail on the head in referring to “music of great tenderness and intimate expression”.

There are two items which particularly caught my attention. Philip Moore’s The angel Gabriel was commissioned by Daniel Hyde for the 2019 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; so, it’s the first such commission of the Hyde era. Anyone expecting a new take on the all-too familiar traditional Basque tune will be in for a shock – in a good way. Moore has written a completely new tune and his music is vigorous and strongly rhythmical. Not only is the choral writing very individual but also there’s a thrilling and highly independent organ part. At one point Moore pays homage to Stanford by making reference to his Magnificat in G – Vladimir Plantea is the excellent treble soloist in this passage. Moore has written an impressive and exciting piece.

Possibly Covid restrictions prevented the King’s Organ Scholar, Paul Greally from taking part. Instead, there’s a guest organist, Matthew Martin, formerly the Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford and, since April 2020, Precentor and Director of Music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He plays excellently in all the pieces that require an organ accompaniment but he really comes into his own towards the end. The Chilcott piece is followed attacca by Martin’s Prelude to ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, which is actually based on Of the Father’s heart begotten but it leads seamlessly into Mendelssohn’s great tune. Right at the end Matthew Martin treats us to Francis Pott’s Improvisation on ‘Adeste, fideles’, which was commissioned as the closing voluntary for the 2005 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Andrew Stewart rightly references the “striking contrapuntal ingenuity” of the writing. Pott has written a spectacular virtuoso piece. It sounds magnificent on the King’s organ, not least because all the contrapuntal lines are clearly reported by the recording. Matthew Martin gives a stunning performance, bringing this programme to a terrific conclusion.

I mentioned earlier that the standard of the performances on this CD are very high. It’s clear from the photos in the booklet that the demands of social distancing had to be met, meaning that the adult singers were distanced from each other and from the boys. That poses challenges for ensemble and tuning but the King’s choir meets those challenges head on and surmounts them. The recorded sound on this CD is extremely good. Social distancing must have complicated the task of engineer Benjamin Sheen but you’d never know. The choir has been recorded successfully and clearly. The blending of the voices is very good, despite the distancing; of course, that’s as much a tribute to Daniel Hyde. From several previous releases on this label, it has been apparent that Benjamin Sheen is especially skilled in recording the King’s organ. This CD is another example of his expertise: the instrument is recorded with presence and impact and is very well balanced with the choir. As is usual with this label, the documentation is very good.

I promised to try to answer the question whether we need another recording of Carols from King’s. In terms of the quality of performance and music I believe the release is fully justified. But even more significantly, this release documents the success of the King’s musicians in overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 to ensure that the tradition of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was maintained.

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’

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