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I also agree with Malcolm. King's was at its peak under Willcocks. Whether you like his sound or not (I do, but I am also an enormous fan of Hill's recordings at Westminster Cathedral), the singing was never as meticulous before and has never been since. It is still an absolutely first rate choir, of course, but it is now just one among many and not necessarily the best.

 

I'm with Vox on this. To me the sound of King's at the peak of its beauty is for me best exemplified by the Willcocks recordings of the Byrd 3, 4 & 5 part masses together with the Taverner "Le Roy" Kyrie (one of the best ever written IMHO) and "The Western Wynd" mass. The singing in this is, to me, perfect. The flowing individual voice parts in several sections are sung so crisply and with consummate empathy with the music. I really don't think that today's choir could come within a stone's throw of these 1960s performances.

 

Then there are the definitive performances of Herbert Howells' canticles, RVW's Mass in G minor and , of course, Handel's Messiah. I will not willingly listen to any other recording of Messiah. How could the King's version be bettered? No warbling soprano (solo or chorus), a young James Bowman, Robert Tear and Ben Luxon with the choir doing the rest. The highlights for me have always been the superbly sung counter-tenor solos from JB performed with such verve, along with the choruses, of course. My 3 LP set was the first of my collection to go into honourable retirement when CDs began to infiltrate. The vinyls had been abused by, successively, Dansette, Garrard SP25, Fisher and finally Marantz decks (not that the Marantz, still in use, abused them much), and deserved their rest!

 

The choir today seems unexceptional amongst its peers and the 2008 Christmas broadcasts left me feeling a little disappointed, as they have for several years now.

 

I'm not exclusively a King's/Willcocks fan; the George Guest era at St John's was tremendously exciting both in the flesh and on disc. I loved the way Dr Guest could get the choir to produce an edgy tone for, let's say, Vittoria masses and then soften it to sing English music. I often did the "Sprint" between King's and John's evensongs and it was fascinating to compare the two choirs (and organs) in so short a period. I, like Vox, also admire Westminster Cathedral choir and have learned much from their recordings.

 

P

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I believe the Cleobury brothers were both choristers at Worcester Cathedral, is anyone aware who would have been DOM at that time, would Willcocks himself still have been at Worcester at that time, or was it perhaps Christopher Robinson?

A bit of Internet research and mental arithmetic easily provides the answer for those who look carefully. Sir David Willcocks was at Worcester from 1950-1957; Douglas Guest from 1957-1963; and Christopher Robinson from 1963-1974. With Stephen being born in 1948 and Nicholas two years later, a logical assumption is that they were both under Douglas Guest. Stephen says in the new Willcocks biography that he first met Willcocks in Cambridge in 1967.

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For my money (and to complicate matters further), I rate the choir of Saint John's College, Cambridge under Christopher Robinson over Willcocks (too mannered - too perfect, if such a thing exists), Cleobury (actually, for a lack of consistency) and Hill (unclear diction and, in his Winchester days, a lack of dynamic subtlety)

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Times move on, standards and expectations change. Take this into account & the Kings recordings under Willcocks are quite remarkable. Still hard to beat IMHO. I have the 3-disk Stanford series done by David Hill at Winchester, and these are also quite superb. I also have a couple of LPs (but nothing to play them on) of St. Paul's under Barry Rose that I think are sensational.

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The Barry Rose/St Paul's recording "Music for a great cathedral" LP has now been issued as a CD. Very sadly, many years later, one of the solo boys on that recording, Robert Eaton, (who came from Brighton and whose family still live here) was in one of the Twin Towers in New York on the wrong day and at the wrong time.

 

Malcolm

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Are you supposed to believe that it's live? Says who?

I have always assumed it was live, but having read the other submissions I am beginnig to have doubts. I have always wondered why the sound broadcast is different: why not just record the TV version sound? Also, when I was in Cambridge in 1948 I attended a service of 9 lessons andcarols in King's but it was several days before Christmas Eve.

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Slightly off topic, but as someone with a brother (52) who is a CF sufferer, I was delighted to see that "A Boy Called Alex" was amongst the choral scholars in evidence at the 9 lessons & carols.

 

The broadcast itself seems a bit of a farce. I found myself being impressed by the whole choir's ability to start unaccompanied carols without any given chord, but then frequently being reminded that the service is effectively fake by the pecularliarly changing lighting conditions in the chapel. How are you even supposed to believe its live when there is light streaming through the chapel windows at a time when, given the time of year, it should be pitch black outside?

I have always assumed that the builing is floodlit from the outside to show the stained glass at TV broadcast services.

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Guest Echo Gamba
I have always assumed it was live, but having read the other submissions I am beginnig to have doubts. I have always wondered why the sound broadcast is different: why not just record the TV version sound? Also, when I was in Cambridge in 1948 I attended a service of 9 lessons andcarols in King's but it was several days before Christmas Eve.

 

 

I think the TV version is shorter, and includes non-biblical readings; presumably to make it more "accesible" whatever that might mean!

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I have always assumed it was live, but having read the other submissions I am beginnig to have doubts.

I'm slightly surprised by the mistaken assumption that a choir would sing a 90-minute live radio broadcast (preceded in the morning by balance and rehearsal for them and the readers) and follow it - with barely time for a breather, TV rehearsal and refreshments - by a live 75-minute TV broadcast with choreography. As mentioned earlier, BBC2 and the College have neither advertised Carols from King's as a live transmission on any occasion, nor have they sought to create that impression.

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You notice, for example, that all the members of the laity who read seem to be sitting in the same seat and, for the length of the service, it seems to go from very light outside to black night-time very quickly and suddenly. But, if it makes lots of money for them, why not? Maintaining the chapel and its music foundation cannot be cheap even if it is a comparatively wealthy college.

 

Are the cameras remote controlled (some always seem to be located in very awkward places) or are they operated by camera-men in situ?

 

Malcolm

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Yes, I commented earlier that the strange lighting conditions, and inconsistent variations in the lighting, are one of the give aways.

 

I certainly wasn't trying to suggest any great conspiracy or underhand dealing on the part of either the BBC or Kings, but nevertheless I'm sure that there are a great many people who believe that they are watching a live annual event from the chapel of Kings College each Christmas Eve, and not some carefully crafted conconction, including goodness only knows how many retakes, recorded at some earlier date. Given that some of this years carols were also in last years broadcast one begins to wonder whether the whole thing could not be done by re-editing.

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Guest Cynic
Yes, I commented earlier that the strange lighting conditions, and inconsistent variations in the lighting, are one of the give aways.

 

I certainly wasn't trying to suggest any great conspiracy or underhand dealing on the part of either the BBC or Kings, but nevertheless I'm sure that there are a great many people who believe that they are watching a live annual event from the chapel of Kings College each Christmas Eve, and not some carefully crafted conconction, including goodness only knows how many retakes, recorded at some earlier date. Given that some of this years carols were also in last years broadcast one begins to wonder whether the whole thing could not be done by re-editing.

 

 

For God's sake don't suggest this to the Beeb, they're penny-pinching enough!

 

The trouble with returning each and every year to Kings is that however hard everyone works, it is a sort of Red Queen Situation. By that I mean, there have been so many slick, subtle, artistic versions of the same items in previous years that making it sound fresh and vital must be quite an effort without anyone carping on about how it isn't as good as it used to be - which you tend to get anywhere, let alone Kings. I feel sorry for SC, actually. There's been a deal of bile written elsewhere (anyone here read the BBC Radio 3 message-boards on this subject?)

 

For my six-pennyworth, I think there's too much 20th and 21st century in current KCC programmes. Too much dashing around after effect and too little of the timeless beauty of the carols that have been passed down to us.

 

Let us hope that there will always be so many first-class men and boys choirs that we are constantly praising individual teams, jostling for position as 'the finest in the country'. I quite understand admirers urging for less famous places to be noticed for the stunning musical ensembles they are lucky to have at present. Sadly, this tradition is under threat. Forget recession, IMHO the greatest danger is ill-educated, liturgically illiterate clergy-people. All this fancy choir-stuff is (as you probably know) classed as 'elitist' by a good percentage of clergy. Whatever happened to 'only the best is good enough for God'? That too is now seen as elitist. It is only a matter of time before the barbarians are upon us, even in the hallowed halls of universities and cathedrals. Moral: don't knock it, even if you can do better (which I doubt).

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Guest Echo Gamba
I don't think the production is being knocked unduly cynic. I for one just find it amusing that anyone may think the broadcast is a 'live' event. If you were to level any criticism though it could be suggested that the programme is a little too 'slick'. As welll as all the points already mentioned surely everyone has noticed the lack of coughing and general low-level of noise you do get with a live, dare I say 'natural' broadcast? This is simply because the 'congregation' is told quite firmly that no coughing etc is aloud. The producer will be roaming around and getting quite vociferous about this. But I agree, as a packaged event, it does look and sound very good.

 

Personally, I don't have a problem with "slick" in this context. The broadcast is conceived as an act of worship ("worth-ship") so what is wrong with making it as good as possible?

 

I have never been aware of so much "Kings-Bashing" as there seems to have been this past Christmas. Ok, the set-up in a cathedral or college chapel is different to what most of us live with, week-in and week-out, but surely, to a greater or lesser extent, some of the same problems beset us all. (Message curtailed before rant takes grip!)

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there have been so many slick, subtle, artistic versions of the same items in previous years that making it sound fresh and vital must be quite an effort

Not really. Willcocks had a 100% turnover of boys over four years and of men over three. I assume it's much the same for SC. That might make for quality control problems, but getting stale shouldn't be a danger.

 

Agree with the rest of your post though!

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Before this seasonal topic hibernates completely, here is an informative link for those who have been unable to distinguish between the live radio relay of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and the television recording of Carols from King's.

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