King’s Celebrates 100th Carol Service

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

This two-disc set’s title–100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols–is a bit confusing. This year, 2018, is indeed the 100th anniversary of King’s College’s now legendary Christmas Eve service known as A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. However, no recordings were made until the 1950s, and most people today only know this event through those recordings or its annual radio broadcasts (which were begun in 1928). The recordings programmed here are presented in chronological order; the oldest is from 1958–60 years ago–a performance of Gabriel’s Message, conducted by David Willcocks. In addition, we (thankfully) are not subjected to any of those stuffily recited “lessons” (included on original recordings of the services)–the discs are (happily) filled only with carols, 37 in all.

The selections on Disc 1, covering the period 1958 through 2017 (only selected years, mind you), under that period’s three conductors–Willcocks (5 tracks); Philip Ledger (3); Stephen Cleobury (13)–are taken from the live BBC broadcasts, which “have not been heard since the original” performances. So you won’t find these in your collection of Carols From King’s recordings–which is nice, except if you’re expecting to hear a particular favorite or two, such as John Rutter’s beloved What sweeter music (written for the King’s service in 1988) or Willcocks’ inimitable descant to Once in Royal David’s City, which are not here. Oh well. What we do get is to sit in on the very first performance of Judith Weir’s weird and wonderful Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985), and to hear many other works commissioned by director Stephen Cleobury–from Arvo Pärt, Michael Berkeley, Huw Watkins, Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, and others. We also hear Boris Ord’s lovely Adam lay ybounden in a 1963 performance conducted by Willcocks. (Ord was in charge of the choir when it made its first recording of the carol service in the 1950s.)

Disc 2’s 16 selections are newly recorded–in 2014 and 2018–and feature the traditional (Willcocks’ classic settings of God rest you merry, gentlemen and O come, all ye faithful; Berlioz’s The Shepherds’ Farewell), newer arrangements of traditional carols by Ledger and Cleobury, Joubert’s There is no rose, and a few original creations by James Whitbourn (The Magi’s Dream) and several others. As you might expect, the sound of the recordings in general improves with the passage of time and advances in recording technology; during his long tenure, Cleobury (King’s music director since 1982) also transforms a choral sound that to many ears had previously tended toward the stark and impersonal, headed by proudly colorless trebles, creating a warmer, more charismatic quality that defines the singing on the vast majority of the program. If you’re a King’s fan, you will want this, for its historic value, for the previously unreleased performances, and for the several works that you probably won’t have anywhere else in your collection. It’s not comprehensive by any means–that would have required a substantial set of discs–but it’s a thoughtfully conceived compilation, an important tribute to this choir’s unique 100-year-long Christmas legacy.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: 100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols

Works & Arrangements by Ord, Willcocks, Warlock, Weir, Chilcott, Rutter, Pärt, Cleobury, Whitbourn, Bach, Berlioz, Joubert, others

    Choir of King's College, Cambridge, David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, Stephen Cleobury

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