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A Year at King's
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.

“A Year at King’s”

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music; Peter Stevens, organ scholar

EMI 6 09004 2 [CD]

$12.49  Click to buy

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 choir.

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 appetite!

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.

Steven Plank

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