A Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols

Choir of King's College, Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury (EMI 6860822)

11 January 2010 4 stars

Lessons and CarolsFirst heard in something close to its present format in 1918, 'A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' from King's College in Cambridge has become an iconic herald of Christmas. The programming of spoken verses from the King James Bible, interspersed with 'carols' (sung by the Choir of King's College) and 'hymns' (add the congregation) has become an enormously popular format for Christmas Eve worship and celebration.

Similar programmess have sprung up in towns small and large, all over the Christian world. First broadcast on the radio from King's College in 1928, overseas transmissions were added over the following decades, and Public Radio stations finally brought it to the US in 1979. Thus, millions of listeners are invited to incorporate the King's College service into their personal agendas for the Christmas holiday. Providing the listener with even greater flexibility, EMI Records, in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, have been marketing audio recordings of the event for several years, and their most recent release – the live service from Christmas eve, 2008 – is now available for home listening. In most respects, this new issue is self-recommending: the performances and recording quality are splendid.

Arthur Henry Mann, appointed to his post in 1876, was the Director and driving force behind the evolution of the music for the 'Lessons and Carols' service. The current Director – Stephen Cleobury – took on the job in 1982, becoming only the fourth in the position since Mann, a lineage that bespeaks long service and intense commitment. Cleobury's dedication to the college is apparent, not only in the superior quality of the choral performances exhibited on these discs, but also in the thoughtful selection of carols presented each year. The performance from 2008 is a beautifully planned, exquisitely balanced case-in-point. The influence of all of Cleobury's forebears is felt through the inclusion of pieces they arranged or harmonized during their respective tenures, and this depth of tradition adds an appropriately respectful flavour to the sacred context of the event.

Cleobury has made his own profound impact on the service by commissioning new pieces each year since 1983. The list of contemporary composers who have contributed is illustrious, and they have produced several striking additions to the repertoire. Among these is Judith Weir's Illuminare Jerusalem, which was commissioned in 1985 and programmed once again in 2008. It is an astonishingly beautiful piece that stretches the trebles to the absolute limit of their skills. The new composition for 2008 – Mary - was composed by Dominic Muldowney (b. 1952) to a text by Bertolt Brecht. Though I was not immediately impressed with the melodic quality of the writing, Cleobury highlighted the intriguing choral textures effectively, producing an ethereal glow. The added stratum of a sub-chorus enhanced this effect, giving the 'sound-picture' a vivid, three-dimensional quality.

The other previous commission from Cleobury's tenure presented during the 2008 service was Rutter's What Sweeter Music from 1987. This gently lyrical carol, composed to a colorfully descriptive, seventeenth-century text by Robert Herrick was a highlight of the service. Other standouts included the traditional opening processional hymn, Once in Royal David's City (signalling that inner voice that announces: 'Ah yes, now it's Christmas time'), and the medieval Nowell sing ye now with its age-old harmonies evoking an 'old-fashioned' Christmas. Mixing sonorities both old and new, Tavener's The Lamb was also shown off to perfection.

A second novelty was introduced to the service with Tranchell's If ye would hear the angels sing, which sounded distinctly under-rehearsed. The grainy sound of 'baritone' soloist Ashley Richards (sounding quite like a tenor to this listener) was a further detraction. Other minor shortcomings included occasional loss of coordination between vocal lines (not surprising given the challenging acoustics for recording) and the usual flatting of the trebles in the highest register, though the latter occurred surprisingly seldom. Tenor Joel Robinson made a strong and eloquent contribution to Vaughan Williams' Wither's Rocking Hymn, in which Jon Wimpeney was an equally impressive treble. Wimpeney's singing – of all the evening's multifaceted offerings – offered the most evidence of the changing times, with his distinctly 'pop-music' tonal production standing in sharp contrast to the purer, white treble sound of yesteryear. All of the readers delivered their texts flawlessly and with a marked dignity appropriate to the occasion, and organist Peter Stevens finished off the service with an appropriately stentorian voluntary.

The entire affair was by no means an easy challenge for the recording engineers, and EMI are to be commended for a first-rate issue. Their quality booklet notes and CD production do honour to the service and would make a handsome addition to any collection of seasonal recordings.

By David Laviska