Carolling in January?

Jeremy Pound drops in on a recording session at St John’s College, Cambridge

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Right. Christmas is well and truly over. The decorations are back in the loft, people have stopped wishing each other a Happy New Year, only a couple of grim-looking orange creams are left in the festive tin of Quality Street, and the bank account is depressingly empty. So, then, who’s up for some carols?

The question is not quite as facetious as it seems. Given how most leading choirs have their diaries booked by other things in the run-up to Christmas Day – carol services, concerts, foreign tours, partying – few have enough time then to devote to the lengthy and intense process of recording a festive disc. So, some choose instead to give the carol books an airing at some other time in the year altogether – it’s not entirely unknown to have singers in tee-shirts and shorts inviting us to see amid the winter’s snow on a baking day in July. Others go for early in the new year, when the music is still fresh in the mind and the weather aptly seasonal.

The latter option is what the Choir of St John’s, College, Cambridge decided on, which is why I find myself sitting in the college chapel on 14 January, listening to an exquisite arrangement of ‘Noel Nouvelet’ (whose tune, disconcertingly, I have always associated with the Easter carol ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’…).

Being invited to recording sessions is one of the great privileges of working on a music magazine. It’s where you get an unmatched insight into how musicians work together in the drive towards perfection – every smallest detail is discussed, rehearsed and improved, with some takes lasting only a couple of bars before either conductor or producer stops things before something isn’t quite right. It sounds frustrating, but is actually very involving.

When working with boy choristers, there’s an added pressure. Child employment laws insist that they are not allowed to record for more than four hours per day (speaking as an ex-chorister myself, this is a good thing), while reasons of cost and time, plus availability of college buildings, mean that Chandos Records are unlikely to want to pitch their van outside the chapel for more than a long weekend.

As a result, things move very slickly. While not everything can be controlled – if a bus draws up outside the chapel, there’s not much one can do about it – anything that could ruin a take is carefully guarded against. I notice that a couple of choristers have removed their potentially squeaky trainers, for instance, while all are asked to memorise a couple of bars if it means avoiding a rustly page-turn.

The choir itself sounds on terrific form, with a balanced blend both within the treble line and between the voices. I’ve long been a fan of St John’s, a choir that under George Guest, Christopher Robinson, David Hill and now Andrew Nethsingha has been consistently excellent but, with King’s just along the river, has possibly not always received the recognition it deserves (not to mention being left out of a recent magazine survey of the ‘world’s top 20 choirs’ on the grounds that they have not recorded a disc in the last two years – in fact St John’s released two CDs in 2010 alone).

In the past, I have largely associated the choir with quite a forceful, vibrato-infused sound, not dissimilar to that heard at, say, New College, Oxford or Westminster Cathedral. Judging from these sessions, however, the present crop of trebles has a lighter, smoother tone. While I wonder if this might mean less ‘oomph’ in heavier-weight repertoire, there’s no evidence from what I’ve heard to back this up. Talking between sessions to Andrew Nethsingha, who himself was once the organ scholar here under Guest, he tells me that are tweaks that he’d like to make to his choir’s sound. But then choirmasters always, always do.

And importantly, both his choristers and his undergraduate lower voices seem to be really enjoying this recording. I’m sure we didn’t have this much fun recording in my day. Other Cambridge colleges may take great delight in singing ‘I’d rather be at Oxford than at John’s’, but this lot seem more than happy to be here. As, for one afternoon at least, do I.

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine