Friday 2 December 2016

A wonderful opportunity to hear what the very first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols might have sounded like from the Choir of Truro Cathedral under their Director, Christopher Gray on a highly recommended release from Regent

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is the Christmas Eve service held in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. The Festival was introduced in 1918 to bring a more imaginative approach to worship. It was first broadcast in 1928 and is now broadcast to millions of people around the world.

However, the origins of the Festival Service date back to 1880. The Diocese of Truro and the Isles of Scilly was formed on 15 December 1876 from the Archdeaconry of Cornwall in the Diocese of Exeter. The first bishop of this new diocese was Edward White Benson (1829-1896), later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1878 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported that the choir of Truro Cathedral would sing a service of carols at 10.00 pm on Christmas Eve. Two years later, Bishop Benson devised a service with Nine Lessons for use on Christmas Eve 1880. This first service took place at 10.00 pm on Christmas Eve in a temporary wooden structure serving as the cathedral whilst a new cathedral was being built. Over 400 people attended this first service.

A new release from Regent Records brings together on CD and DVD a reconstruction of that first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, a documentary on its history and a recording of the 2014 service in Truro Cathedral.

Audio CD (59.23)
and DVD 5.0 and stereo (112'13)

The DVD starts with a recording of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Truro Cathedral on 23rd December 2014. This recording is impressive both sonically and visually. A very fine treble solo opens Once in Royal David’s City, an effect borrowed from King’s College’s own idea in later years. There is some impressive singing from the Choir of Truro Cathedral  under their Director of Music, Christopher Gray . The chosen readers reflect a more modern inclusiveness ranging from representatives of community organisations to clergy.

There is some impressive treble descant singing that rises over the choir and congregation as well as some very fine individual voices. There are many of the popular carols one would expect as well as the premiere of a new carol by Russell Pascoe, The Salutation Carol, which receives a particularly fine performance in every way.

The final carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, is as thrilling as any you will hear and the Festival concludes with a thrilling, incredibly fluent Toccata on Vom Himmel hoch by Garth Emundson played by Truro’s Assistant Director of Music, Luke Bond

A documentary about the history of the Service in Truro follows. Presented by conductor Jeremy Summerly, it is a wonderful and fascinating history of the Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols as well as Truro Cathedral – and much more.

A great deal of research has gone into both the documentary and the reconstruction of the First Festival Service. We are taken through the story of the 19th century carol revival, Bishop Benson’s new carol service and the reconstruction of the first Festival with all the research into the music as well as mentioning the Father Willis organ that came later in 1887 when the organist was George Robertson Sinclair who later found fame as ‘G.R.S’ in Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The documentary follows the travel of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols via Canterbury, when Benson became Archbishop and then to Kings College in 1918 where its poignancy was felt after the appalling tragedy of the First World War. We are given a glimpse of all the care and thought that goes into the modern Festival Service in Truro that takes place each year on two nights, the 23rd and 24th of December.

Finally there is Truro Perspectives where three former Directors of Music, David Briggs, Andrew Nethsingha, and Robert Sharpe talk about their time at Truro Cathedral and the development of the choir in more recent years.

The CD brings us the reconstruction of the very first Festival Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1880 where we are transported back 136 years. The Service opens with a spoken Our Father and responses; the First Lesson read by Senior Chorister, James Lansdowne. Each reading is preceded by a brief Benediction and the readers are chosen, as did Bishop Benson, in hierarchical order from the most junior to most senior, originally the Bishop but here the Dean.

In the first carol, The Lord at first had Adam made, shows this choir’s fine blend of voices and there are nice touches where the reading reflects the following carol.

There are three pieces from Handel’s Messiah as well as favourite carols that are heard today before a terrific Hallelujah from Messiah leads to the Magnificat given in Anglican chant. After the blessing there is a fine voluntary, the first movement form Mendelssohn’s Sonata No.3 in A major from organist Luke Bond. 

Beautifully produced with a facsimile of the 1880 Nine Lessons and Carols order of service, this is a wonderful opportunity to hear what the very first Festival Service might have sounded like.  Truro should be proud of their history, tradition, choir and cathedral. Highly recommended. 

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