The Choir of King’s College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (music director), Chan Centre, March 26, 2017

Photos by Jan Gates

Photos by Jan Gates

It has been decades since the revered Choir of King’s College Cambridge has visited Vancouver, and this was a big event both for those that had not seen the ensemble before and those that had especially fond remembrances of them. It has always been the clean timbre, expressive feeling and angelic radiance of the boy choristers that has enshrined the ensemble’s spirit – made very popular through their Lessons and Carols and Evensong at Christmas – and I am happy to say that this spirit came through undiminished on this occasion. Under the direction of their long-time director Stephen Cleobury, the programme was interesting and varied, moving from the Tudor to modern French repertoire and ending with early Italian, 19th century German and 20th century British pieces.    

It is very difficult to keep a choir at its performance apex over decades.  Though originally formed in 1441, much of the last century’s awe over the choir likely starts from those delicious Argo recordings made under David Willcocks and Boris Ord in the 1960s which had a lovely cathedral ambience and where the pure, ringing tones of the boy choristers would simply float to heaven. Many of the recordings of that era were truly inspired and one still comes back with delight to their Handel Coronation Anthems and Chandos Anthems, and other items ranging from the Tudor masters to Benjamin Britten. Nonetheless, for all the excellent recordings that the choir subsequently made for Warner/EMI, it has faced two constraining factors as its directorship has moved from Sir David Willcocks to Philip Ledger, and then ultimately to Cleobury (who has now held the mantle for more than three decades). The first is that, while the ensemble was originally on the leading edge of ‘authenticity’ when it used the boy’s voices in Baroque works, current notions of authenticity tend to favour smaller, more intimate choirs than the 30-plus in this ensemble, and are less persuaded by the use of boy choristers. The second factor is biological: as has been widely documented, boy’s voices now ‘break’ earlier – before the traditional age of 12-14. This is apparently attributable to changes in diet and exercise over the past half-century. Thus, the ‘average’ maturity of a boy’s choir must be systematically lower: the oldest singers are now lost earlier.  It has been often proposed that the choir entrance age be moved back to 6 but then the relative innocence of the youngest can be a liability.

The above are real considerations yet I enjoyed this concert immensely. The characteristically rich hues and expressive power of the ensemble were always in evidence, and the elevated lines of the boys – sometimes tender and sweet, sometimes cutting – remained a perfectly balancing complement. Discipline might not have been quite as pristine as we sometimes see these days from smaller choirs, and Cleobury does not err on the over-adventurous side, but there was always life and feeling in the singing, a great sense of commitment, and phrases were articulated with firmness and authority. The treble line was as distinctive as the rich-hewn fabric of the lower voices, imparting a fine range and shape to the choral fabric. 

In the opening pieces, one was taken by the incisive energy in John Mundy’s ‘Sing Joyfully’ while Orlando Gibbons’ ‘This is the record of John’ revealed a rather different quality: an admirable distillation of the meaning of the text. The more modern French pieces of Messiaen and Faure found pliability of texture, a fine sense of vocal suspension and a strong cutting edge when needed. The latter’s ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ is an old friend, and I was impressed with the control of shading and balance at pianissimo levels, both here and elsewhere. The French enunciation in Durufle’s ‘Ubi caritas’ was a delight, as was the sharp, buoyant attack in Poulenc’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. 

The second half may have been even finer. It was touching to hear Purcell’s ‘Jehovah, quam multi sunt’ to begin, since this was the piece that David Willcocks wished to have played at his funeral in September 2015. The performance was endearing, finding a fine question and answer between the voices and an (almost) Handellian bounce of inspiration. Of the two Gabrieli pieces, ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ was particularly successful, having splendid concentration and a resonant luster at the top end.  Purcell’s ‘I was glad’ combined singing of unusual emotional openness with a very fine choral bloom. The choir also caught the sinew and dramatic strength in Bruckner’s ‘Christus factus est’, pushing out its long lyrical lines with conviction while cultivating both warmth and suspension. After the seeped tones and sustained phrases in Percy Whitlock’s moving ‘Jesu, grant me this, I pray’, the concert concluded with Brahms’ ‘Shaffe in mir, Gott’. This was rightfully uplifting, with a heartfelt freshness and innocence in the expression, and a sense of nobility overall.

One might have noted a few intonation lapses from the trebles and, fleetingly, a turgidity and thickness in the vocal line, but it was the inspiration and sheer musicality of the singing that set the seal on this fine concert. I didn’t worry very much about the tonal thickness, since a good portion of it seemed to come from the short decay time of the Chan Centre, which compresses the choral strands more than a cathedral would and limits the elevation of the treble line. For those members of the audience who may have participated in church choirs in this (once) very British city, I think it was very heartening for them to see that the English choral legacy is still alive and well, and pushes on despite all obstacles. (The ensemble now has its own recording label.) It was also thoughtful for Stephen Cleobury to speak during the concert on the historical connection between King’s College associates and Vancouver music, citing Bruce Pullan, who directed the Vancouver Bach Choir for many decades up to 2009, and Hugh McLean, who spent equally many years as organist and music director at Ryerson United Church and participated in some of the famous early Argo recordings with Boris Ord. Those days are recalled with great fondness: as it happens, I was one of the original boy sopranos in the Ryerson Choir under McLean’s tutelage.


© Geoffrey Newman 2017