Spotlight: Christmas Concerts

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The Independent Culture

Christmas concerts are a right royal circus: and you won't easily find a bigger big top than the Royal Albert Hall, or a ringmaster as canny as conductor Jonathan Cohen, the former wizard of TV's Playschool, who whipped up the kids like a wicked Sauron for Raymond Gubbay's "Christmas Carol Singalong". "Hello, you on the shelf," Cohen calls to the back rows, some four storeys up; and blithe as a bobsleigh, we're off.

It helps to bill surefire hits, and - as the LSO chorus proved with John Rutter's version next day - "I Saw Three Ships" rarely flops. Here Cohen did his own arranging, and good it was too. This was a dazzling programme, complete with a terrific young soloist, Sophie Louise Dann, a characterful crooner belly dancing in pink who could see off Kim Criswell and Ruby Wax, and whose unsmug rapport with the audience - and Cohen, crooning over the keyboard like Richard Rodney Bennett in a rapt cabaret daze - made for bonhomie galore. "Have yourself a merry little Christmas" was just divine.

A top-notch Crouch End Festival Chorus mastered Albert's famously crippling acoustic to cap their LSO rivals. Dann's demure take on a prepubescent choirboy's "Once in Royal David's City" was hilarious. Time for "Good King Wenceslas": "I want the girls to sing 'Sire, he lives a good league hence' in a sort of pathetic tone," begs Cohen, pathetically. They duly oblige, as gruff massed men demand their hogsheads.

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and Jule Styne's "Let it Snow!" scintillated; Cohen's gorgeously bizarre fusion of "He's Got the Whole World" with "Go, Tell it on the Mountain" made Gospellers of us all. Winter Wonderland wooed, Santa came to town, Bob Cratchit's family got fed, and all was right with the world. Thanks to Gaffer Gubbay for a corker of a show.

How many galas in a galaxy? Not quite so hot was another sumptuous seasonal spread-cum-Gubba gala, introduced at the Barbican by goode olde Graeme Garden. Playing link-man without much else to, Garden gamely whacks in with an anvil. An RNCM training should have taught tenor Richard Coxon not to make crass hand gestures; and more "support" would improve his thinnish timbre too. No high marks for Joanna Burton's swoopy "Silent Night" either. Best by a mile was Christmas Carnival, by the LPO's principal horn Richard Bissill - full of syncopated buzz, ingeniously enjambed carols, stunning orchestration, and terrifically played. A palpable hit.

Also right on beam was the LSO's Christmas Concert conducted by Richard Hickox, who revealed Last Night of the Proms potential as compere and had the wits to wheel out a real soloist: Glynebourne's German soprano, Anne Schwanewilms, a true star without a whiff of glitz.

Excellence here included Dulwich College chorister David Stark, the RCM's recent Miles, to whom - judging by his clear-headed, audibly profound musicianship - he can do wonders with words. A university should offer a choral scholarship tomorrow. But the meat of the moment (apart from LSO chorus director Joseph Cullen's terrific In Excelsis Gloria, with choir a cappella) was Miss Schwanewilms's singing Strauss's "Die heiligen drei Konige aus Morgenland" - heralded by an Elgar-sounding cello and as enrapturing as Brahms's "Alto Rhapsody" - followed by an unbelievable "Ave Maria", ascending from quadruple piano to triple forte. Simply sensational.

One marked highlight of St John's, Smith Square's Christmas festivities was the group Joglaresa, who also breezed in to one of South East England's most enchanting venues and best-kept secrets - All Saints', Tudeley, a tiny church near Tonbridge in Kent, with a Georgian marbled ceiling and packed with Chagall windows.

It was packed with punters, too, for Belinda Sykes's spirited medieval ensemble, whose new programme Stella Nuova: a Medieval Italian Christmas, complete with Islamic-sounding fidel and oud (Arabic lute), plus tamborello, bagpipes and some knockout drumming from Paul Clarvis, delightfully demonstrated this spirited group's hypnotic versatility - modern Jongleurs all. Jennie Cassidy (tender) and Catia Gianessi (punchy) furnished the soprano line; Sykes herself has a melting low mezzo, which beamed through "Ave Maria" "Gracia Plena".

Tudeley specialises in Early Music, and you don't get much earlier than these cackling 13th-century Laudi di Cortona. Strange to think this cheerful hotchpotch was once as modern as Chagall. You can catch their tercentenary Biberfest and Sweelinck Ensemble concert next April.