CLASSICAL MUSIC / The season to be wary

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WHEN YOU go to a Christmas Concert organised by Raymond Gubbay at the Royal Festival Hall you don't buy a programme, you buy an in-flight magazine. Or you did last Sunday afternoon: 124 pages of it, good value so long as you took it to the other 23 concerts it described. It was accompanied by a bulging promotional folder, offering personally engraved fountain pens and Volvo test drives.

The concert started springily enough, the timpani of the London Concert Orchestra cutting through the applause to convince us that everything would be just fine. Which it was, until Crispian Steele-Perkins came on to dispatch a trumpet voluntary or two and put things in perspective. His playing was casually brilliant - just as you would expect - and that was the trouble. The bounce and edge of his performance, its authentic zippiness, enthused the orchestra; and when the trumpeter held his instrument aloft in cheery farewell all the afternoon's pizzazz seemed to walk off stage with him.

Then we were in the soup: Panis Angelicus; a brace of Ave Marias (Bach/Gounod and Schubert/Various): all traditional Christmas music that shares nothing with the season except a general sentimentality. The Southend Boys Choir came on for an evangelical-sounding interlude of carols. The Thomas Tallis Choir (whose director, Philip Simms, was the afternoon's conductor) were vigorous and down-to-earth. And the 3,000 of us who joined in at the end just made a hell of a noise. At Christmas, 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' quite supplants 'Jerusalem' in the rousing-and-patriotic stakes, and it made an excruciatingly massive finale.

A more intimate setting for the next event: St John's, Smith Square, for an evening of Saint- Saens, and a taste of his sweet but not entirely satisfying Christmas Oratorio. A reputable venue and tickets at pounds 14.50 surely constituted some guarantee of quality, even if the Concordia Chamber Orchestra and Singers didn't ring a bell. Not so. Bows scraped; the conductor stamped impotently as the (admittedly flu-ridden) orchestra fell apart. But we were an impassive crew, and nobody complained. Or maybe they did later - I left at the interval. And if they did, let's hope the management of St John's was their target as much as the players.

For pounds 1.50 less you could have bought the best ticket at the QEH on Wednesday and had Christmas with the Tallis Scholars. For those who were game for an evening of unaccompanied sacred motets, it was an excellent deal. Renaissance vocal music isn't easy to listen to - its intricate strands tend to blend when they meet an inattentive ear. But the Tallis Scholars achieved distinctness and lightness.

Just occasionally the music demanded a heavier touch. The dark, thick sound opening Josquin's motet Praeter rerum seriem, for example - a magnificent aural metaphor for the mystery of Christ's advent in the world - was brighter than seemed right. A wonderful clarity of tone is this choir's obvious virtue as well as its weakness. Not that it got in the way in the finale, a Magnificat by William Cornysh. Their approach paid off. In Cornysh's setting of the static text 'Ever shall be, world without end' to a series of extraordinary, leaping notes, God's eternal presence in the world became a matter for the clearest rejoicing.

Which, it has to be said, was not something I did much of myself at these Christmas concerts. It took the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and other stars (James Bowman, Emma Kirkby, J S Bach . . .) to show us the true spirit of the season. We were in Westminster Abbey, which helped. Monarchs slumbered all around us. Gentlemen in the audience whispered that they would have to slip past at eight o'clock - rather a tricky Bill going through the House, y'know - and you felt bang at the centre of the world.

Pomp is one of Bach's things, too: high trumpets (Steele-Perkins again, back among his period instrument comrades), drum rolls, snappy dotted rhythms, all the paraphernalia of rejoicing. And he pulls a magical trick on us in the first music of the evening. There we were, settling into what sounded like the overture of his fourth orchestral suite, when suddenly voices from the choir started joining in. 'Our mouths be filled with laughter,' they sang, 'our tongues with loud singing,' and whenever the word 'laughter' cropped up they peeled off along delighted paths of shaking quavers. Marvellously appropriate. But we were right, too: it was the fourth orchestral suite, redone as the opening chorus of Cantata 110, Unser mund sei voll Lachens. A parody movement, as they say - new text to old music - and a stroke of genius.

There were a few problems. Lowish parts disappeared in the Abbey acoustic; and the orchestra sounded at times strangely exposed. But the Abbey Choir kept everything alive, chipping away at each accent, each consonant, and balancing the chorales of the Christmas Oratorio (Parts IV to VI) with tantalising skill. In the aria Flosst, mein Heiland, a boy chorister echoed the seraphic Emma Kirkby with exquisite theatricality. And the tenor Rufus Muller rose to the challenge of standing in for Neil Mackie as the Evangelist with a performance of wonderful drama and passion. The conductor was Martin Neary, Master of the Abbey Choristers (where Blow and Purcell are among his predecessors). Against the odds, he succeeded in putting some meaning back into this strange time of year.