“100 Years of Nine Lessons and Carols” – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, Stephen Cleobury – King’s College Recordings KGS0033 (2 CDs), 106.42 minutes [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

It’s hard to believe that the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been going on for a hundred years. Eric Milner-White, a man who arrived at King’s in 1903, graduated, got ordained, and served parishes until he returned to King’s in 1912. Upon his anointment as Dean in 1918, he set about revitalizing the services, using as a model the service set up by the Bishop of Truro, EW Benson, who in 1880 created a service built on the great feasts of the middle ages, with nine lessons interspersed with appropriate carols. It caught on quickly in the city of Cambridge, and by 1928, when the first broadcast happened, spread like fire.

And it wasn’t just the music—the choir itself developed through a thorough reworking of the choral program that established it as one of the best in the world. Eventually, especially in the 1950s, recordings were released, though it wasn’t until 1999—unbelievably—that the entire service was recorded in toto. The modern choir has been represented by three titanic conductors—Sirs David Willcocks, Philip Ledger, and Stephen Cleobury, who has had the longest tenure, though he now retires at the end of 2019. The Nine Lessons and Carols is now a tradition celebrated throughout the world, one of the most popular international broadcasts available.

This two-CD set celebrates that fact, with the first disc dedicated to recordings from 1958-forward, by all three aforementioned conductors. It is instructive to hear the differences in the choral timbre over the last half-century, the earlier rather staid and controlled—yet gorgeous—while Cleobury has introduced a rawer sound, with a sensation of wildness in many of the selections. Of course, we are talking about Christmas music, so take “wildness” in context, but rapt listeners will understand the suggestion, and Cleobury has been criticized especially by some British critics for this; in my opinion, needless silliness.

The second disc is a brand-spanking-new collection of just-released carols, some modern, some old, by a varied collection of composers, all excellent. It demonstrates that the standards set over a hundred years are still being maintained by a new cadre of singers and choral scholars. From what I have found, it is essentially a two-for-one deal, a true seasonal bargain with real Christmas music instead of so much shlock that normally appears this time of year. 100 years, well earned, well continued, with no signs of flagging in the future.

Disc 1: Historical recordings from the live BBC broadcasts: Conductor, David Willcocks
1 Gabriel’s Message (1958) Traditional, arr. Edgar Pettman
2 Adam lay ybounden (1963) Boris Ord
3 Ding! dong! merrily on high (1963) XVI Century French, arr. Charles Wood
4 Sussex Carol (1963) English traditional, arr. David Willcocks
5 Ocome, all ye faithful (1963) John Francis Wade, arr. David Willcocks: Conductor, Philip Ledger
6 In dulci jubilo (1980) German trad., arr. Robert L. de Pearsall, ed. Reginald Jacques
7 Unto us is born a Son (1980) Piae Cantiones, 1582, arr. David Willcocks
8 Hark! the herald angels sing (1978) Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, arr. Philip Ledger: Conductor, Stephen Cleobury
9 Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985 – premiere) Judith Weir
10 The holly and the ivy (1994) Traditional, arr. Henry Walford Davies
11 Benedicamus Domino (1994) Peter Warlock
12 I saw three ships (1994) Traditional, arr. Simon Preston
13 The Fayrfax Carol (1997 – premiere) Thomas Adès
14 Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1997) John Gardner
15 I wonder as I wander (2000) Carl Rütti
16 The Shepherd’s Carol (2001) Bob Chilcott
17 Dormi, Jesu (2007) John Rutter
18 Bogoróditse Djévo (2007) Arvo Pärt
19 This Endernight (2016 – premiere recording) Michael Berkeley
20 Carol Eliseus (2017 – premiere recording) Huw Watkins
21 Once in royal David’s city (2017) H J Gauntlett & A H Mann, desc. Stephen Cleobury

Disc 2: New recordings: Conductor, Stephen Cleobury
1 O Holy Night Adolphe Adam, arr. John Rutter
2 The Linden Tree Carol Traditional, arr. Stephen Cleobury
3 The Lamb, John Tavener
4 God rest you merry, gentlemen English traditional, arr. David Willcocks
5 The Shepherds’ Farewell, Hector Berlioz
6 I saw three ships Traditional, arr. Philip Ledger
7 We three kings of Orient are John Henry Hopkins, arr. Martin Neary
8 Can I not syng but hoy? Francis Jackson
9 The Magi’s Dream, James Whitbourn
10 There is no rose, John Joubert
11 Adam’s Fall, Richard Elfyn Jones
12 How shall I fitly meet thee? Johann Sebastian Bach
13 Love came down at Christmas, R O Morris, arr. Stephen Cleobury
14 Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, Johann Sebastian Bach
15 O come, all ye faithful, John Francis Wade, arr. David Willcocks
16 Hark! the herald angels sing, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, desc. Stephen Cleobury

—Steven Ritter

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