In one sense this is a fairly standard compendium of hymns from the safest set of hands in English church music. All seasons of the year are catered for, and there are plenty of favourites in the mix. The singing is predictably impeccable, and the welcoming acoustic of the King’s College Chapel is caught very effectively, echo and all.
It’s not just a safe collection of comfort blankets, however. Each hymn features at least one verse arrangement by the choir’s long-serving director, Stephen Cleobury, so even if you have a CD of hymns already, you’ll find something a bit different here. Normally, the well-known harmonisations hold sway for the first verse or two, but Cleobury’s arrangements kick in later, most regularly through the final verse descants. Some are more effective than others, of course: I found Thine be the Glory a little fussy, for example, and the descant of Angel Voices jarred after a beautifully uncomplicated rendering of the prior verses. There is plenty to enjoy elsewhere, though, and there seems little point of recording a disc of hymns unless you are going to do something a little out of the ordinary with them.
Alleluya, Sing to Jesus features a lovely tenor/bass then soprano/alto arrangement of the final verse. Let all Mortal Flesh sounds mysterious rather than majestic and Abide with Me, perhaps my favourite hymn, is lovely, full of consolation and poignancy. Similarly, there is quiet majesty to O God, our help in ages past, while Now Thank We All Our God is refreshingly light-footed, and Glorious Things is beautifully airy. Lord of All Hopefulness has no descant, but is very sensitively scored. All Creatures of our God and King has a slightly odd organ introduction, but the choral writing is the classic one, sung with radiance and gusto. Just as I am is beautifully simple, as it should be, but Come Ye Thankful People sounds almost like an unfolding music drama.
The seasonal hymns carry connections with certain times of year that will make them special for many listeners. For me, it's the Easter hymns, like the beautiful My Song is Love Unknown, which are more effective than the Christmas ones, though Christians Awake has an effective unaccompanied verse with a baritone solo standing for the angel’s voice together with descant of an angelic chorus.
On King’s College’s growing own label, the disc comes in at a pretty bargain price, and it goes with an attractively presented (and separately available) copy of the scores as published by Edition Peters. Seeing them written down makes even this most rudimentary of pianists think himself capable of giving them a go, and it might help these arrangements to gain a wider audience. The performances on the disc are self-recommending.