If you don’t already have enough documentation of the yearly Christmas celebration of the Nine Lessons and Carols by the famed and beloved Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in your collection, then this new release—the debut of the choir’s own label—taken from the 2010 service, will be an essential acquisition. Familiar favorites are here: the mainstay opener Once in royal David’s city; Boris Ord’s Adam lay ybounden; the Pearsall In dulci jubilo; Sussex Carol; Ding! Dong! Merrily on high; Hark! The herald angels sing—along with other “modern” classics, from Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem and Pierre Villette’s Hymne à la Vierge, to Jan Sandström’s Det är en ros utsprungen.
Each year music director Stephen Cleobury commissions a new carol for the service, and the one for this 2010 festival was the simply-titled Christmas Carol by Einojuhani Rautavaara, a relentlessly grim affair of meandering homophony, with the labored, uninspired character of, well, many other commissioned pieces. Perhaps “you had to be there” for this one, but it’s definitely not one of this brilliant composer’s best efforts.
Beyond the context of the service—with its periodic recitations of scripture by church, school, and town representatives, most of them proudly exhibiting their best “high church” linguistic affectations—we get a a bonus program of all the other carols commissioned from 2006-2011, from the shrieking dissonance of Brett Dean’s Now comes the dawn (2007), to the dramatic and often musically engaging Mary by Dominic Muldowney (2008), to Tansy Davies’ thorny Christmas Eve (2011)—a mixed bag of challenging new repertoire that, with the exception of Gabriel Jackson’s lovely The Christ Child (2009), the composers obviously did not intend for broad consumption. Unlike the concluding John Rutter work—specially written for this recording.
Rutter virtually invented the modern popular choral Christmas carol when he fulfilled a commission for none other than Stephen Cleobury for the 1988 Lessons and Carols service. “I wrote a little carol for King’s,” he once told me in an interview; “I never thought for a moment it would sell.” Well, that “little carol”, What sweeter music, went on to become one of the best-selling, most frequently performed choral works in the world, and not because it was easy to sing. Its inherent beauty and captivating melody just made you want to sing it, have to sing it—and hear it, again and again. The same can’t be said for this new piece, All bells in paradise—which although it carries Rutter’s trademark charming, eminently singable melody, catchy rhythmic structure, and recognizable harmonic changes, does not have quite the earlier work’s sophistication, or aura of inspired creation. Yet, it is a very well written, tuneful piece (Rutter also wrote the text) that today’s choirs will find accessible and fun to sing.
It would be hard to fault anything in the performances—who knows better how to do King’s than King’s?; and indeed, the choir sounds magnificent, even though this space always proves a challenge for recording engineers. They do a very fine job here, taking into account the compromises in detail made to capture the special ambience of the King’s Chapel venue. It’s really irritating that track numbers are listed only on the inside of the liner booklet; otherwise the packaging is very well designed and the notes by Emma Disley, describing the origin and history of this unique and vastly popular Christmas service, are interesting and informative. The label’s second release, coinciding with a U.S. tour in 2013, will be Mozart’s Requiem, including alternate completions of the work. You know if you need this.