On the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Cambridge…

November 10th, 2016

It is less than two weeks until one of the choral highlights of the year – the annual broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, and more specifically the inclusion of a newly commissioned work to either inspire of infuriate the wider listening community. To many people the service represents the beginning of their Christmas celebrations with the opening solo of Once in Royal David’s City, and it does leave me feeling warm inside as well, but what interests me more is the new commission and who they have commissioned to write it. All the good and glad of British contemporary music have written pieces in the past thirty years from the predictable (Rutter, Chilcott, MacMillan) to the less-than-predictable (Adès, Turnage, Birtwistle) all with varying degrees of success.

To my mind the most successful were the beautifully understated pieces by Jonathan Dove (The Three Kings, 2000) and Lennox Berkeley (In Wintertime, 1983) alongside the wonderfully creepy The Gleam (2003) by Harrison Birtwistle and Jonathan Harvey’s sonorous The Angels (1994). The pieces from the last five years have all been fine, though perhaps have left me a little cold – in fact I struggle to remember much about them other than the composer. This year the new work is by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, simply entitled Christmas Carol. I find Rautavaara to be a ‘patchy’ composer, perhaps mainly due to the huge amount of music he has written, but I have enjoyed some of his choral music and if anything it should give a necessary European voice after several years of British commissions (I realise Brett Dean is Australian, but for the purpose of this blog entry he qualifies as British).

Another facet of the service I greatly admire is re-programming of previous commissions that takes place – this year will see a subsequent performance of Judith Weir’s spritely 1985 commission Illuminare, Jerusalem. Whether or not The Gleam or John Casken’s A Gathering will be performed again in the not-too-distant future is a different matter…

Well then, hats off to Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge for all their hard work and forward thinking – I’m not sure who is to be commissioned for future festivals but the mixture of progressive and traditional makes for interesting listening. Any requests?


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