(KGS/BBC; two CDs) — When it comes to Christmas music, the recordings of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, have stood near the top of the heap for decades, and none more than their renditions of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” celebrations at that British institution. The tradition began a hundred years ago, at Christmas 1918. A month after World War I ended, King’s College graduate Eric Milner-White devised the novel Christmas service as a gift from the college to its town — a succession of carols sung by the college choir, congregational hymns, and readings by community luminaries. The annual event gained a following throughout Britain when it began to be aired on the radio in 1928. The service was broadcast throughout World War II, reaching covert listeners on the continent and even in some prisoner-of-war camps. The Choir, which consists of men and boys, gained further renown in the era of the LP record and beyond, under the direction of David Willcocks (who headed it from 1957 to 1974), Philip Ledger (1974-1982), and Stephen Cleobury (since 1982).
To mark the “Lessons and Carols” centennial, the Choir has assembled a two-CD set (all music, no readings) that includes tracks taken from BBC broadcasts going back to 1958, plus new items Cleobury conducted expressly for this collection. The accompanying booklet holds a wealth of enlightening information about the English choral tradition in general, as well as the technical characteristics of this ensemble under its different directors — a boon for listeners interested in developing connoisseurship about top-level choral singing. The early recordings display the choir’s signature sound: unworldly purity, immaculate diction, attention to every last detail of timbre and phrasing. “Ding! Dong! Merrily on High,” from a 1963 broadcast, is an exemplar of the approach. Here, too, are the group’s signature descants, precisely rendered by the boy sopranos. Ledger’s overlay to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1978) has become classic, and when the organ adds its booming accompaniment, the sound resonates imposingly within the chapel’s Gothic arches. Comparing Willcocks’ arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (led by him in 1963) with a new reading of the same version conducted by Cleobury reveals the chorus’ evolution to an aesthetic that allows less straitjacketed sound and emotion.
Contemporary music has figured prominently during the tenure of Cleobury, who will retire next September after 37 years in the job. The set includes many pieces he commissioned, including anthems from King’s College alumni Judith Weir, Thomas Adès, Huw Watkins, and Bob Chilcott. Choral superstar John Rutter, who was a student next door at Clare College, is represented by an original lullaby (“Dormi, Jesu,” commissioned by the group in 2008) and a particularly well-turned arrangement of “O Holy Night.”