If only it were a silent night

All over Britain, concert halls are echoing to the sound of the same festive favourites. But you don't have to settle for seasonal second-best just because it's Christmas, says Lynne Walker

Seasonal crackers are meant to contain surprises, not tired tat. Yet from about now till Twelfth Night, there's precious little on offer for the music lover with an appetite for something less stodgy than traditional Christmas fare. The festive celebration seems to have become an excuse for trundling out the same "pops" repertoire, for shamelessly exploiting Victorian carols and for dressing up classics in fancy costumes and flickering candle-light. Looking through British orchestra brochures and concert listings at this time of year it's difficult to believe that this season has inspired so much wonderful music. Does everything need to be decked in holly just because it's that time of year?

Performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio are thin on the ground this year, though Birmingham's Symphony Hall is presenting it complete for the first time since it opened in 1991. Of course, Handel's Messiah appears in all shapes and guises - in local halls and great cathedrals, ponderously sung by serried ranks of massed voices in the version by the Dickensian-sounding Ebenezer Prout, or given a brisk make-over with one-to-a-part delicateness, cadences crunched and embellishments elaborated. Whether we stand or remain resolutely seated for the "Hallelujah" Chorus, it doesn't seem as though Howard Blake's The Snowman has quite succeeded in freezing out Handel's masterpiece.

Everyone has their own personal Christmas favourites, of course, and no matter how often it's done Britten's A Ceremony of Carols still thrills me. But in addition to seasonal works by Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Peter Warlock and many other British names, what has happened to Gerald Finzi's ecstatic cantata for voice and orchestra Dies Natalis, partly inspired by Botticelli's painting Mystic Nativity in the National Gallery? It works as a Christmas piece, drawing inventively on Christmas themes for its material, and is as unsentimental as Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols is sweet. The latter's Hodie christus natus est makes up for that lapse, however. And while Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony isn't exactly saccharine-free, it's a cheery piece of orchestral craftsmanship that seems to have been forgotten.

Une Cantate de Noël ("A Christmas Cantata") by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger has as its centre-piece a celebration of carols, put together not only side by side but one on top of the other, offering an ambitious choir and orchestra a brilliant challenge. But few concert programmes seem to reflect living composers of any quality, though the Hallé at least includes an arrangement of the traditional Spanish carol "The Virgin Washes the Swaddling" by its associate composer Colin Matthews. In Liverpool, they can't get enough of traditional carol concerts, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs giving six on the trot this year.

For the commercial producer Raymond Gubbay, whose coffers are already ringing merrily to the tune of £7m in advance sales for his Christmas series that stretches from London to Glasgow, it's simply a case of giving audiences what they want. This year, however, he points out, he's not only continuing a collaboration with the London Community Gospel Chorus, but he's helping to make the yuletide gay with the London Gay Men's Chorus and presenter Simon Callow, who's also going to glitter at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra carol concerts. Subsidised orchestras either feel that they can't compete with such a gigantic enterprise or they fear that there's not enough goodwill (and spare cash) to go round.

There are some scraps for those hungry for something more substantial at this time of year. The South Bank Centre's refreshing "Cool Yule" offers jaded palates some distinctively different world and jazz-themed programmes. Then there's the Wigmore Hall, which is hosting the Nash Ensemble in arrangements of Johann Strauss by Schoenberg and Berg, while the Scottish Ensemble's Christmas tour, which continues this week in Glasgow and Perth, combines Elgar and Bruckner with Schoenberg. His sensual Verklärte Nacht may be inspired by the story of a pregnancy but it's a long way from Bethlehem.

A festival put together at St John's Smith Square also avoids musical humbug: it mixes seasonal sacred vocal music with the ceremonial flavour of cornetts and sackbutts that sound so well in the festive season. The singers of The Shout are making a big noise in various cities over the next week or two, promising music from Bombay to Broadway, Africa to the American South - and not a scrap of tinsel in sight. London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, meanwhile, broadens its repertoire next week with liturgical and Yiddish music from the Cantors in Concert.

York's enterprising Early Music Christmas Festival, too, is a glowing exception to much of the bland programming elsewhere, featuring newly edited Christmas music by Charpentier, published locally. It ends tonight with the intriguingly titled programme "Praying for Reign: The Private Music of the King-in-Waiting" - the king being the Grand Dauphin, Louis XIV's heir - in the church of St Michael-le-Belfrey, High Petergate. In London's East End, Spitalfields Winter Festival opens tonight in Hawksmoor's Christ Church with Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort & Players in Handel's Belshazzar, focusing on a Biblical drama that, with its boisterous drunken orgies and visions of writing on the wall, is far removed from the Nativity.

By the 12th day of Christmas, musical life begins to return to normal, excesses and frivolities forgotten as some seriously good festivals get underway: Clara Schumann's piano is parachuted into Manchester for the Royal Northern College of Music's focus on the Schumann and Brahms triangle (6-9 January); the BBC Symphony limbers up for its annual January Composer Weekend Celebration at the Barbican in London - this year featuring James MacMillan in "Darkness into Light" (14-16 January); and musical organisations prepare to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Michael Tippett.

The promise of new music in the new year can't come soon enough for those of us sated with candied carols blasted at us from all directions.

Cool Yule, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0870 401 8181) to 2 Jan; Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7258 8200) 16 Dec; Scottish Ensemble: tour information on www.btscottishensemble.co.uk; Hazard Chase Christmas Festival, St John's Smith Square, London SW1 (020-7222 1061) 14 to 23 Dec; The Shout plays at St George's, Bristol (0117-923 0359) 16 Dec, Dartington Hall (01803 847070) 20 Dec, Komedia, Brighton (01273 647100) 22 Dec, Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 401 8181) 28 & 29 Dec; Cantors in Concert, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181) 20 Dec; 'Praying for Reign', York Early Music Christmas Festival, St-Michael-le-Belfrey, High Petergate (01904 658338) tonight; Spitalfields Winter Festival, London E1 (020-7377 1362) to 22 Dec

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