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Visual arts >

Heavenly Holst at All Souls’

Roderic Dunnett enjoys an imaginative Christmas concert in Langham Place

THE Christmas and New Year celebrations at All Souls’, Langham Place, which culminated in the traditional Watchnight service on New Year’s Eve, kicked off with a carol concert notable for its vitality and spark, its imaginative range, and the invention, character, and verve of the orchestral arrangements by Gerard Brooks, who also conducted the All Souls’ Choir and Instrumental Ensemble with ease and assurance.

Gustav Holst’s carol sequence Christmas Day, which is far less often performed than Vaughan Williams’s popular Fantasia on Christmas Carols, rapidly revealed the versatility and flair of these well-drilled musical forces: in particular, the subtle transitions between the carols were cleverly managed, and the folding in of a soprano solo, attractively sung by Nicola Spence so as to provide a cantilena of “The First Nowell” floating above the choir singing “Good Christian Men”, provided a moment of compelling beauty.

“Rise Up, Shepherd”, an American traditional song delivered with precision and clarity, and featuring the same soloist, was one of several a cappella works in which the chorus seemed to thrive in unaccompanied music of an earlier period, some of which was revitalised by the energetic 18th-century West Gallery tradition. In much the same mould was “Shaw Lane”, a rustic-sounding setting of Nahum Tate’s “While shepherds watched”, whose music dates back to Este’s Psalter of 1592; and also “The three harks”, a robust treatment of “Hark, the herald angels”, very different from Mendelssohn’s popular setting.

Christina Rossetti’s poem “Love came down at Christmas” was one of several pieces that placed the accent on an original modern treatment: in this instance, a striking and alluring setting by Rob Stroh, who is a former horn-player with the All Souls Orchestra. Another Rossetti setting, a variant approach to “In the bleak midwinter”, was by the versatile Bob Chilcott: the excellence of the choir’s delivery here rather eclipsed a lacklustre, overweighted performance of Peter Cornelius’s “The Three Kings”, in which the tendency of the characterful New Zealand-born baritone Laurence Kubiak to boom loudly slightly obtruded.

This highlighted another drawback: the choir’s enunciation seemed admirable enough without over-echoey amplification in the generous acoustic of All Souls’: at times, jingling harmonics wrapped themselves round the music like a foggy peal of bells.

Mark Hayes’s engaging carol sequence Christmas in the Manger included two particularly well-managed spirituals, “The little cradle rocks tonight in glory” and “Mary had a baby”, a theme taken up by Gerard Brooks’s equally deft arrangement of the West Indian carol “De virgin Mary had a baby boy”.

Peter Warlock’s “Bethlehem Down”, rather too portentously sung on this occasion, lacked lightness until the last verse, which was lovingly delivered. An amusing diversion was created by Jan Holdstock’s witty round “Noel, noel”, which capped “Tell out the news”, by the same gifted composer.

Another welcome rarity was “From East to West”, a very recent carol by Alan Gibbs, which, along with the syncopated “Babe of Bethlehem”, by Edmund Walters, proved one of the most stylish and polished items of the evening.

Typical of the inventiveness of this attractive seasonal concert was the inclusion of Charles Gounod’s carol “Nazareth”, in which once again a formidable bass solo is supported by a beguiling chorus line. It sounds like an offshoot of opera, not unlike the yearning exiles’ chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco. And special mention should be made of the well-honed female voices, whose presentation of Max Reger’s carol “The Virgin’s slumber song”, with sensitive woodwind accompaniment, could scarcely have been bettered.

All in all, a notable achievement and a fitting seasonal celebration for these articulate and capable All Souls’ forces.

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