Swedish Christmas, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Just as I was about to head out into the night for my Christmas spectacular at the Barbican, I got re-routed. Word had come through that Mr Gubbay had had enough of critics. Shame, but another festive event was quickly rustled up: Swedish Christmas at the Wigmore Hall.

The From Sweden season is an ambitious attempt to put Swedish music and musicians on the map. As a young member of the male voice choir Vastgota Nations Manskor i Uppsala helpfully explained, "Sweden is in northern Europe." This soberly dressed, all-male, black-tailed troupe began the evening's activities from the back of the Wigmore. A Swedish-accented "Ding, dong" preceded a high-spirited "merrily on high", sung, if memory recalls, in English.

Alas, all the other vocals were in Swedish, and there were no translations to help. The programme was, however, full of information that was useless unless you wanted to paint a house: "It is illegal to repaint a house without a painting licence and the government's permission [Swedish Law]."

A recipe for making Swedish meatballs looked more hopeful, and there was a recipe for making Christmas cookies taken from the Swedish-American Book of Cookery and Adviser for Swedish Servants in America (1882), which turned out to be the text for a song composed by Mats Lidstrom, the artistic director of From Sweden.

Lidstrom turns out to be organiser, composer, performer, and top bottle-washer. Perhaps too many tasks? He appeared first on stage in a Father Christmas beard, but his red tartan trousers began to give the game away: British and Swedish Father Christmasses might not be that interchangeable.

Like many a concert dressed up to be Christmassy, the spirit was kept in check. True, the soprano Susanna Andersson at first donned cooking attire (a large apron) for her solo role in Lidstrom's cooking epistle, then broke from it to become the Christmas Fairy for Percy Grainger (arr Lidstrom) in "The Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol", accompanied by three cellos (Lidstrom, Tim Wells and Jakob Kullberg). Her "Three Christmas Songs" (arr Lidstrom) were sweetly sung to Annabel Thwaite's piano-playing.

Bizarrely, the virtuoso percussionist Johan Bridger, playing the largest marimbaphone I've ever seen, rocked and tinkled in pieces by Leigh Howard Stevens and Nebojsa Zivkovic, and then there was "Samba and Blues" by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (arr Lidstrom) for two cellos and piano. What was the Christmas relevance?

The chairman of From Sweden, Roger Gifford, gave a couple of readings - Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant" and Viktor Rydberg's "Tomten" (some kind of Swedish elf) - with less than perfect articulation. But it was too bad that the final choral medley from the gentlemen of Uppsala didn't feature a little jig: all of them had cowbells round their necks, gently tinkling. Christmas had come.

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