Bleak indeed. Not depressing but reflects great courage in a tough time.
“In the Bleak Midwinter” = Christmas Carols from King’s – The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Matthew Martin, organ/ Daniel Hyde – King’s College, Cambridge KGS0060, 74:30 ****:
The King’s tradition is of course a very old and honorable one, but Christmas in the year 2020 was very unusual indeed, for several reasons. New director Daniel Hyde is making his Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols record debut, and in fact his first full album since taking over the reins in 2019; and he did so in a chapel where the singers were quite spread out. Aside from that, all was normal, except that for the first time there were no people participating in person. Nonetheless, it was felt that the tradition was so important, especially during a global pandemic, to try and keep the Christmas spirit alive, if only over televisions and radios. Quite a poignant reminder, lonely, isolated, but perhaps no more than the original participants in that long ago cave in Bethlehem.
It’s in that spirit that this album becomes meaningful. After all these years it is becoming extremely difficult to review this service without sounding repetitive and complacent. The King’s, maybe more so than any other popular ensemble, is a rather predictably consistent group. Some folks like them, and others don’t, usually put off by the boy sopranos. I would not listen to this sort of thing as a steady diet, but they always bring some unusual takes on the familiar, and some convincing presentations of the unusual. Technically, it is almost impossible to detect any sort of noticeable changes from year to year, which is a remarkable testimony to the always-high standards. One finds oneself concentrating on secondary things, like the quality of the recorded sound that year–which often does, for some reason, vary. But overall, you know what you are getting, and its only a decision as to whether you want more of it that makes the difference.
This year is different, however. Director Hyde says this recording “captures a very unusual, private and lonely Christmas as we did all we could to keep our fragile tradition going, and to be ready for Christmas Eve.” Startlingly, you do sense this when listening. First of all, the selections given are quite traditional—no new turns of phrase or odd, jarring new carols. It’s all very middle of the road. In fact, organist Matthew Martin’s improvisation on Adeste, fideles at the very end of the program is the most energetic thing you hear, and even it seems curiously out of place. A certain degree of somberness floats over the proceedings, a sameness of tone and tenor, as if there are tears in the eyes of the singers–and maybe there were. It is definitely an unusual Festival this time around.
I would not dissuade anyone from purchasing it, if only for the unique circumstances surrounding it in an historical and unprecedented situation. It is moving—these forces can do no less. And it does make for some wonderful moments of reflection about life in general, and the season in particular. Just know that this is not your grandmother’s King’s recording and is unlike any other.
Once in royal David’s city (desc. Stephen Cleobury)
A tender shoot Otto Goldschmidt
How shall I fitly meet thee? Johann Sebastian Bach
In the bleak midwinter Harold Darke
Of the Father’s heart begotten Traditional, arr. David Willcocks
Angels, from the realms of glory French traditional, arr. Reginald Jacques
An Old Carol (I sing of a maiden) Roger Quilter
In dulci jubilo German traditional
The angel Gabriel Philip Moore
O come, all ye faithful; Adeste fideles, arr. David Willcocks 7:25
Sussex Carol (On Christmas night) English Traditional, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams
While shepherds watched their flocks by night Este’s Psalter, after Christopher Tye
Thou who wast rich beyound all splendour French Traditional
The Shepherd’s Cradle Song (Wiegenlied) Karl Leuner
In the bleak midwinter Gustav Holst
As I sat on a sunny bank (I saw three ships) English Traditional
Still, still, still German Traditional
Prelude to ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ Matthew Martin
Hark! the herald angels sing Felix Mendelssohn
Improvisation on Adeste, fideles
— Steven Ritter