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9.4.13

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Mozart Requiem: Realisations, Choir of King's College, Cambridge
(to be released this month)

available at Amazon
Glorious Majesty: Music for English Kings and Queens, Choir of King's College, Cambridge
Regarded as the “pre-eminent representative of the great British choral tradition,” the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, offered a rare performance Sunday afternoon to an audience of thousands at Washington National Cathedral. The choir was founded in 1441 to sing daily services in the college’s wondrous chapel, though it is best known for its annual Christmas Eve radio broadcasts of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, heard worldwide by millions since 1928. The sixteen boy choristers, fourteen undergraduate choral scholars (who sing alto, tenor, and bass), and two organ scholars are led by Stephen Cleobury, who is nearing the thirtieth year of his tenure as Director of Music.

Cleobury planned a safe program of Tudor and English Baroque anthems that the choir undeniably owns, as well as two extended works by Benjamin Britten and a few sacred gems by Verdi. William Byrd’s, O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth Our Queen was a clever way to open the program by giving a reverent, if not penitential nod, with musical cross-relations, to both Elizabeths -- particularly Elizabeth II in her Diamond Jubilee year. On the Octave of Easter, one was slightly dismayed to be so persuasively led back into the depths of Lent with Byrd’s O Lord, in thy Wrath, John Blow’s My God, my God, Look Upon me, and Salvator Mundi. Easter joy was experienced through Byrd’s Sing Joyfully with vocal trumpets heralding the new moon, and Purcell’s I Was Glad with bouncing dotted rhythms.

The quality of the Choir of King’s College’s performance stems from their impeccable tuning, where rainbows of overtones spring from each note, creating kaleidoscopic chords. Though many choirs throughout the world can sing beyond in tune with mild tuning adjustments to find just intonation to access pure harmonics, few have the experience of singing daily services in the King’s College Chapel, with the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world, while pursuing academic interests of all sorts -- one can hear the history and seriousness of the place in their singing.

Benjamin Britten’s extended Hymn to St. Cecilia, set to a W. H. Auden text, showcased Britten’s deftness at selecting and merging language and music, as pointed out by Cleobury in his comments to the audience. The choir sang about the patroness of musicians with great poise, letting the text gently unfold. Britten’s delightful cantata and musical menagerie Rejoice in the Lamb closed the program with excellent soloists as the cat Jeoffry who serves God with “elegant quickness,” the Mouse who is “a creature of great personal valour,” and the Flowers who “are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.” The work was expertly accompanied on the organ by organ scholar Parker Ramsay of Nashville, Tennessee, the first American organ scholar in the history of the University of Cambridge.

Ramsay also added Easter flair to the program with J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541, which had a HIP northern continental clarity that showed he is used to sending out sound in harmonic chunks in rooms with grand acoustics to avoid the mush, and can favorably make tempos seem faster than actuality. However, the double trills added at the end of the fugue detracted from its strength. Organ Scholar Douglas Tang gave the singers a breather during the second half of the program with French-Romantic composer Charle-Marie Widor’s Finale from Symphony No. 6, where the exciting upward arpeggios hopefully made the audience grateful Tang did not select Widor’s warhorse, the Toccata from Symphony No. 5.

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