December 2005

On Christmas Day -- New Carols from King’s
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Stephen Cleobury, director
EMI 58070
Format: CD
Released: 2005

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been celebrated on Christmas Eve at King’s College since 1918. I first became aware of it from an Argo stereo LP of the 1964 service, conducted by Sir David Willcocks. I was struck by the beauty of traditional carols overlaid and embroidered with heavenly descants sung by boy sopranos. Since that historic recording appeared there have been many others of the annual service, including an excellent multichannel DVD-Video that ideally captures the cathedral acoustic of the performance location.

Beginning in 1982, Stephen Cleobury, then newly appointed as choirmaster, began commissioning new works for the service. Many of these were tonal, but many were not. At first, listeners were startled by the intrusion of these modern works, but they have now become so used to them that the yearly new composition is keenly anticipated. This CD gathers together 22 anthems that have been composed for the King’s service since 1982. The most familiar is John Rutter’s ethereal "What Sweeter Music," a setting of a poem by Robert Herrick which contains this lovely imagery:

"Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn…"

The melodic Rutter piece is not typical of the repertory here, so be warned that much of what is on this disc involves thorny dissonance. Yet every work is rewarding if given an open-minded listen. Among the composers represented are Richard Rodney Bennett, John Chilcott, Judith Weir, Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, and Nicholas Maw. The performances are presumed definitive, and the choir of men and boys sings with beautiful tone and good intonation. The recording is spacious yet detailed. This is one recording that would surely have benefited from multichannel SACD treatment. Possibly EMI can be coaxed into doing that mix for next year’s holiday season. In the meantime, I got good results from this disc when I fed it through the dts NEO:6 setting of my processor.