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Christmas Carols with The King’s Singers
The King’s Singers
rec. 17-20 December 2020, Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, UK

Several members of The King’s Singers were choral scholars at King’s College, Cambridge during the tenure of Sir Stephen Cleobury. Following his death in November 2019 and in the week leading up to last Christmas – a time when Cleobury was very much at the heart of musical celebrations – they recorded this album in his memory, paying tribute to him by observing that, through his musical direction at Christmas, he “offered countless people around the world peace and happiness”. It is a fitting tribute, combining traditional carols with new ones, drawing in new arrangements as well as well-established ones, and all sung with those hallmarks of the King’s Singers’ sound; neat, precise, finely polished, with every note perfectly placed, every syllable beautifully enunciated, and every phrase deliciously moulded. Perhaps surprisingly, while they include one famous Willcocks carol (Tomorrow shall be my dancing day), they do not include anything by Cleobury himself. Recorded, not in the famous King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, but in the rather more homely acoustic of Wells Cathedral School, there is a real sense of intimacy which gives a sincerely personal feel to the recording.

As ever, The King’s Singers obscure the numerical slightness of their group with luscious arrangements and gorgeously blended and balanced voices. Solos emerge from the group like branches spouting from a tree, and their easy delivery, all seem as natural as breathing. And this is what makes this such a special release for Christmas; in an age where fancy arrangements and attempts to move away from the familiar musical customs of Christmas have led to a plethora of awkwardly forced and artificially sentimental Christmas songs, the overriding effect of this recording is of warmth and comfort. We can sit and relax in the company of these singers, and not at any point be disturbed by something unfamiliar or experimental – even songs which might not normally entice Christmas listeners have a comfortable edge when sung with such delightful sincerity as here.

For a King’s Singers release, it is decidedly conventional and free from gimmick, and even the parting shot, Matthias Bucher’s arrangement of a boisterous German song Fröhliche Weihnacht überall, complete with jazzy gestures and fake instrumental vocalisations, seems unusually tame and does not intrude on the overriding sense of comfortable familiarity. More than that, the more conventional carols – such as Gabriel’s Message – are sung with a level of near perfection which transforms them from the familiar to the exception, while the two plainchant items could not be more convincingly delivered if they came from a monastery full of musically excellent monks. My favourite? It’s a toss-up between a simply mouth-wateringly sumptuous account of Pierre Villette’s intensely beautiful Hymne à la Vièrge and Guy Turner’s delightfully innocent Dormi, dormi.. But, in truth, there is nothing here which I would not be happy to have with me at any point over Christmas, and beyond. Cleobury would have loved it all; The King’s Singers have done his memory proud.

Marc Rochester

James BURTON (b. 1974): Balulalow [2:28]
Trad. arr. Brian Kay (b. 1944): Gaudete! (Rejoice!) [1:39]
Trad. arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Patrick Dunachie (b.1993): O little town of Bethlehem [2:36]
David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015): Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [1:48]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955): The Shepherd’s Carol [3:09]
Trad. arr. Goff Richards (1944-2011): La filadora (The spinner) [3:18]
June COLLIN: The Quiet Heart [2:36]
Plainchant: Hodie Christus natus est [1:38]
Charles WOOD (1866-1926): Ding! Dong! Merrily on high [1:43]
John TAVENER (1944-2013): O, do not move [1:55]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611): O magnum mysterium [3:33]
Henry GAUNTLETT (1805-1876) and Arthur MANN (1850-1929), arr. Nick Ashby: Once in royal David’s City [3:09]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht, BWV248 [1:20
Peter Emilius HARTMANN (1805-1900) arr. Bo Holten (b.1948): Julebudet til dem, der bygge (the Christmas Message) [2:15]
Trad. arr. Edgar Pettman (1866-1943): Gabriel’s Message [2:20]
Pierre VILLETTE (1926-1998): Hymne à la Vièrge [1:49]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976) arr. Grayston Ives (b.1948): The little road to Bethlehem [3:03]
Trad. arr. Guy Turner (b.1955): Dormi, dormi (Sleep, sleep) [3:01]
Trad. arr. Goff Richards: Nit de vetlla (A night of watching) [2:50]
, arr. Christopher Bruerton (b.1985): Wither’s Rocking Hymn [3:26]
Gustaf NORDQVIST (1886-1949): Jul, jul, strålande jul (Christmas, Christmas, brilliant Christmas) [2:45]
Geoffrey SHAW (1879-1943): The Lute-Book Lullaby [3:45]
Plainchant: Qui creavit caelum (He who created the heavens) [3:18]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869), arr. Christopher Bruerton: The Shepherd’s Farewell [3:27]
Trad. arr. Matthias Bucher (b.1988): Fröhliche Weihnacht überall (Merry Christmas all around) [3:17]

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