Everyone loves a Christmas album, and a good percentage of artists record them. King’s College chapel choir, though, might well hold the record for releases – logically, one supposes, as their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been part of UK Christmas tradition since its first broadcast in 1928 – as following their first recording under Boris Ord in 1954, they have produced 50 albums of Christmas music (including reissues and compilations). It is somewhat mystifying why there is the market for a new album (especially given that some 25 of the above are still available via download/streaming), but, presumably, there are enough people every year wishing to buy King’s Christmas, and want the latest.
In any event, Christmas 2020 was somewhat special; as well as being Daniel Hyde’s second year as Director of Music (and his hand is present in several of the carol arrangements), it was also the first year in the service’s 102 year history that the choir was present without a congregation. Sixteen of the twenty carols on In The Bleak Midwinter were broadcast at the 2020 service, so the album also stands as a record of this peculiar event.
As King’s recordings go, it’s perfectly fine, and everything you’d expect. The acoustic airbrush of the chapel (minus people) works its wonders on blend (one always feels that this suffers when the choir sings elsewhere), and the gradual progression away from the early Willcocks era ejective consonants and hooty vowels continues, so that the choral sound is less ‘élite’ than in historical recordings (there are those who probably miss this).
As for the carols (and two organ improvisations), they present a generally enjoyable selection of the familiar and less familiar (sadly, there was no new commission for the 2020 service). It’s good to have recordings of Charles Herbert’s arrangement of Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, Roger Quilter’s An Old Carol and Philip Moore’s The angel Gabriel; Elizabeth Poston’s As I sat on a sunny bank is also an enjoyably quirky variation on the more regularly heard arrangements of I saw three ships. Both versions of the title track (by Darke and Holst) are, of course, present, the latter, rather than sung as a congregational hymn, is given by the choir in a gorgeously soupy arrangement by Mack Wilberg (can it always be done this way, please? Congregations so often make a mess of it!).
On this note, the absence of singers other than the choir provided more opportunities that were sadly missed, (probably because of uncertainties around the event, and time to rehearse) to present some of the other congregational hymns in more interesting arrangements; Marston and Hyde’s lovely descant notwithstanding, hearing all six verses of While Shepherds Watched sung to the tediously dull Winchester Old tune is a bit of a grind; even a faux-bourdon verse here and there might have offered some relief. It is, nonetheless good to have recordings of some of these popular hymns without the Willcocks descants, lovely though they are, and there’s clever representation of post Willcocks Directors in their choice: Stephen Cleobury’s for Once in Royal, Philip Ledger’s for Hark! the herald angels…, and the new one mentioned above; Although Robinson and Hill’s descants for O come, all ye faithful might be said to be gilding the Willcocks lily, they are nonetheless rather special.
Of the organ music, Francis Pott’s Improvisation on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is splendid, although Matthew Martin’s Prelude to ‘Hark! The herald angels…’ is a little disappointing. One wants glory and trumpets here, even if the preceding carol is quiet.
Downloads and CDs available here.