Going off with a bang / MUSIC

Christmas Cracker - Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Who produces the best Christmas cracker? Probably the Wigmore Hall, judging from the goodies that fell out during its annual Christmas Cracker concert last Saturday. First a little astringent Poulenc for four hands at the piano, his early Sonata o f 1918, deftly played by Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau. Then Scenes Ecossaises, Benjamin Godard's Op138 for oboe and piano, its two parts - a lilting lollipop and paper-tiger drama - demanding quite a blow from Nicholas Danial. And after that four e arly Schubert songs for the lovely voice of Louise Winter, who brought imaginatively intense and anxious feeling to the well-known "Gretchen am Spinnrade", beautifully colouring the girl's crazed longings with her mellow, velvety big-toned mezzo.

A change of gear and a change of instrument with the cellist, Natalie Clein, 1994 BBC Young Musician of the Year. A very young and sensitive performance of the Andante from Rachmaninov's G minor Sonata revealed Clein's ability to spin out long lines while still keeping the music moving. William Henry Squire's Tarantelle, a piece that every young cellist regrettably has to learn, followed with suitable aplomb - but what a pity that Clein's innings was so short and confined to such limited repertoire.

Back to the voice and to Brahms's magical Songs with viola Op91, and the velvety tones of Louise Winter mingling with the rich viola sonority of Roger Tapping. And then finally the towering musical presence of Thomas Allen bringing effortless control andbeauty of sound to three of Vaughan Williams's Songs of Travel. If only RVW had had the privilege of hearing his songs delivered so eloquently.

After a short interval, yet another fine singer emerged: the American coloratura, Barbara Kilduff, who showed her paces with a range of repertoire: a Tchaikovsky song clearly related to Tatiana's Letter Scene, three songs by Richard Strauss and a spectacular performance of the "Bell Song" from Delibes's Lakme. Her intonation is astonishing, no matter the pitch.

The sobriety of the evening was relieved by the arrival of the musical comedienne, Eleanor Bron. With delightful dottiness, she delivered John Julius Norwich's "alternative" version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, vividly conjuring up Emily's increasingdesperation at David's various gifts. The house was brought down with ease.

But Thomas Allen returned to throw in Cole Porter and then, apparently momentarily thrown himself as music was pressed into his hands, it was time for the sing along of "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas". Seldom can such good taste have been brought to the singing of this song. But good taste was quickly undermined by Victor Hely Hutchinson's Old Mother Hubbard (with apologies to Handel) performed by Winter, Daniel and Drake. Kilduff was billed to end the evening with Adam's mischievous variations on "Twinkle, twinkle little star" but the house wouldn't let anyone go, so Mozart had the last word with "Soave sia il vento" from Cosi, magically sung by the three singers to a "village hall" piano accompaniment.