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Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
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18 Dec 2011
“A Year at King’s”
This recent recording of the men and boys from King’s College, Cambridge, is an anthology organized around the texts and themes of the liturgical year, a scheme that offers ample opportunity for diverse works—in that sense the recording feels something like a “sampler”—but a scheme that also reflects the real experience of the daily life of the choir which sings demanding choral services six days of the week in term time.
Some of the works
on the recording like Tallis’s extraordinary 40-voice motet, “Spem in
alium,” or Gregorio Allegri’s fabled setting of “Miserere” are by now
well-entrenched in the modern ear. How they acheived that status, however, owes
a deep debt to pioneering recordings by the choir under the direction of Sir
David Willcocks (the “Miserere” in 1963 and “Spem” in 1965). The recent
versions stand in the echo of the earlier, amply reconfirming the persistence
of a King’s style, but also the lasting associations of the works with the
The choir is one of many “Oxbridge” choral foundations, of course,
though in reputation and reception they have arguably a singular status; in the
broader world they represent the idealized standard of the English collegiate
tradition and they set the bar very high, indeed. Their idealized position has
been nurtured by the BBC broadcasts of their Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons
and Carols and by a robust legacy of recording, begun under Willcocks. But the
idealization also derives from the cultivation of a singularity of sound,
impeccable, pristine, warm, smoothly blended, seemingly effortless. This is all
predictably and gratifyingly manifest in “A Year at King’s.” If there is
any downside, it is that there are no surprises.
The warmth of the sound—tone embued with the kiss of candlelight--is
particularly rewarding in two Advent antiphons by the Estonian Arvo Pärt, but
even in other styles it figures characteristically, as in Palestrina’s
exuberant Christmas motet, “Hodie Christus natus est.” And if the sound is
warm, it is also flexibly evocative. The pristine clarity of the trebles, for
instance, well serves the astral imagery of Lassus’s Epiphany motet,
“Videntes stellam magi,” whereas the richness of the lower voices undergird
the presence of the aged Simeon in Eccard’s motet for the Presentation,
“When to the Temple.”
These are pieces whose performances and very selection are unsurprising. In
a context so shaped by notions of tradition, it has been significant, however,
that King’s has regularly commissioned new works for their famous carol
service. The commission for 2005, John Tavener’s “Away in a Manger,” is
recorded here, a welcome toying with familiarity. Tavener uses the well-known
text—the strand of familiarity—while in harmonic and dynamic range he
pushes the bounds of expectancy, and in the absence of the familiar tune, gives
a haunting new shape to the lullaby. Given the number of Christmas commissions
that King’s has now amassed and their high quality, a new recording of them
as a group would be a most welcome project; the Tavener here whets the
One “member of the ensemble” deserves special mention, and that is the
chapel itself. The King’s sound bears the golden touch of its acoustical
environment, and one might easily imagine that the marvelous sustaining power
in the singing of works like Barber’s “Agnus Dei,” a reworking of the
well-known “Adagio for Strings,” is the fruit of the daily singing in so
wondrous a space.
A year at King’s would seem altogether too short a time to sample the
glories of the choir; “A Year at King’s,” however, makes for a good step
in that direction.