Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Jan Sandström, June Nixon, Judith Weir, Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première) & Marcel Dupré


As is the custom on 5:4, here are highlights from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which took place on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Day broadcast is always preferable, as it includes the final organ voluntaries.

In a delicious repeat from last year, is Jan Sandström‘s gorgeously dreamy rendering of Det är en ros utsprungen; Praetorius’ original music is practically unrecognisable, but when the result is as rapturously beautiful as this, who cares? Pieces like this prove best how good the King’s College choir really is, negotiating their way through the dense shifting clouds of notes apparently effortlessly.

The occasion continues to be staunchly male-dominated, so it’s refreshing and badly-needed to hear an arrangement by June Nixon (a name probably unfamiliar to many; she is in fact a well-known organist in her native Australia). Her setting of The holly and the ivy, which turns it into a joyous dancing romp, is so much better than its traditional version that it deserves to be heard much, much more often.

This service has led to numerous new commissions, and one of the best (if not the best) returns this year: Judith Weir‘s remarkable Illuminare, Jerusalem, commissioned 25 years ago. Weir’s decision only to use the organ to punctuate the end of each dance-like verse—and then only to use the lower-most region of the pedals—is a masterly one. The performance isn’t a patch on the one they did two years ago, but it’s always a real treat to hear this most imaginative of carol settings.

This year’s commission is from the renowned Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Modal shifts early on in his piece, Christmas Carol, actually sound a bit like Vaughan Williams, but swiftly take on a more familiarly Scandinavian quality (to my mind, often redolent of the Icelandic composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson). Boldly opting for homophonic writing throughout, Rautavaara allows the narrative of his text to predominate, weaving a work that is both a story and an exhortation; the constant chordal writing has an undeniable heaviness to it, but Rautavaara’s colourful harmonies keep it fresh.

The wonder that is Marcel Dupré concluded proceedings, with his energetic and extensive Prelude and Fugue in B; it’s such a shame the noise of the congregation—asked to be quiet in the service book, but clearly ignoring it—at times gets in the way of this glittering piece.

Once again, a PDF of the complete order of service, with full texts and translations, is included with the audio; below is a summary of the music. And once again, a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS to you all!

Praetorius, arr. Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

June Nixon – The holly and the ivy

Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première)

Marcel Dupré – Prelude and Fugue in B

Order of Service

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières
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3 Responses to Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Jan Sandström, June Nixon, Judith Weir, Einojuhani Rautavaara – Christmas Carol (World Première) & Marcel Dupré

  1. Anonymous

    Not knowing I might find here, I laid out several wires across my study and shifted around the furniture only to record the broadcast in stereo on the World Service via satellite …

    Thanks very much for posting, and indeed for your interesting blog throughout the year. Merry Christmas!


  2. Martin

    Merry Christmas and thank you very much from the Netherlands.

  3. Anonymous

    Was there in person. Basically my imoression was the whole thing sounded better in the radio, or was this year service was shaky? The treble solo started nicely but then his voice started dwindling. Sometimes the choir and the organ sounded like they're chasing each other. Some of the lessons readers were barely audible. Was not that impressed of this year's performance.

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