Yesterday, while driving the highway north, I listened to a favourite album which comes out every year during the weeks leading up to Christmas. It's a 2-CD reissue anthology of Christmas carols recorded at the world-famous chapel of King's College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
The King's College Choir has led the famous Festival of Lessons and Carols service every year since 1928, and the service has been broadcast on the BBC (and in many countries around the world) -- every year since 1931. These annual broadcasts draw audiences of untold millions of listeners. The Choir has also made a number of recordings of their carol repertoire through the years, and the album I have at hand contains selections from several such recordings.
While the service of lessons and carols was created originally in Truro Cathedral in the 1880s, it can fairly be said that the annual King's broadcast has played a key role in popularizing the tradition of lessons and carols around the world. In the process, these broadcasts have also circulated some wonderful music that had previously been known and heard only in England.
Listening to these selected numbers from various recordings all at once requires a slight degree of patience, as the dynamic level is apt to jump up or down from one track to the next. Also, some of the pieces are more distantly recorded, so that the chapel's rich, resonant acoustic is more prominent. Speaking of prominence, the chapel's magnificent organ is featured in many selections as well.
For North American listeners who have been brought up in churches such as the Anglican or United churches in Canada, some of these carols will be well known. The recordings contain old friends found in the hymnals of many Christian denominations. But the real treasure comes in the folk carols, some of which are widely known in Britain but far less familiar on this side of the ocean.
I've spent many delightful Christmas hours singing and playing traditional English carols, and yet this album still provided me with surprises and new carols to augment my Christmas traditions.
Throughout these two well-filled discs, the excellence of singing -- whether accompanied or a cappella -- can be taken for granted. Not for nothing is the King's College Choir known as one of the leading choral bodies in the Church of England. Likewise the excellence of the organ playing, in those numbers where it is used.
The second disc of the album concludes with a lovely performance of the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This work, for baritone and choir, includes several wonderful folk carols with passing references to other tunes. It's heard here in the reduced version for strings and organ, and is as beautifully played and sung as all the other music.
If you're not familiar with the rich treasures of traditional English Christmas music, I'd urge you to hunt up a recording or two of this kind, or search online for performances from English choirs -- whether from King's or some other cathedral or college chapel.
And prepare to be enchanted.