Yesterday King’s College Cambridge announced the very sad death of their long-time music director of 37 years, Sir Stephen Cleobury.
Many will know him from the traditional Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the annual broadcast live from King’s that is seen as the beginning of Christmas for many. Yet Cleobury’s work extends well beyond that sphere, not just as day to day conductor of the choir but for his work with the BBC Singers and the Cambridge University Musical Society. As a conductor and organist he made a good number of excellent recordings, a selection of which are included with this article.
One of Cleobury’s most recent releases highlighted one of his favourite composers, Herbert Howells – in recordings of An English Mass and the Cello Concerto:
His association with Howells extended to the organ works, which he recorded for the Priory label back in the mid-1990s. Here is Volume 1 from 1993, including the four wonderful Rhapsodies:
With the King’s College Choir, Cleobury made a number of recordings for EMI Classics in repertoire stretching from Handel to Rachmaninov and Arvo Pärt. Perhaps the best of these is the Ikos disc he released with the choir in 1995, including the music of Pärt, Górecki and John Tavener. It was one of the first releases to recognise a new more minimal approach to sacred music headed by Eastern European composers:
Within the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols Cleobury introduced a rather special tradition of commissioning a new carol each year. This led to wonderful new works for voices from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Weir, John Tavener and Mark-Anthony Turnage among many. The King’s College’s own record label, in tribute to their departing music director, had already released his final service from 2018, a typically thoughtful and inspiring blend of ancient and modern settings of Christmas subjects:
Finally we include here a year-old BBC programme looking at a year in the life of the college choir, led of course by its conductor:
All this serves as an appreciation of just some of Sir Stephen Cleobury’s work and achievements, which he has brought to so many listeners over the last 40 years.