Tradition thrives in Christmas concert

LSO/HICKOX | Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Carols are an unchanging and indivisible part of the secular-sacred festival of Christmas and their link with one of the few surviving communal acts of ritual anticipation may yet prove to make them among the more durable types of classical and folk music. Even so, few carol concerts these days are meant for the kind of listener who can only name a tune having heard the words. This year's LSO Christmas Concert, for example, ranged the full historical breadth of the repertoire, assuming from both its youthful and its grown up audience either an acquaintance with the pieces, or a desire to become acquainted.

Carols are an unchanging and indivisible part of the secular-sacred festival of Christmas and their link with one of the few surviving communal acts of ritual anticipation may yet prove to make them among the more durable types of classical and folk music. Even so, few carol concerts these days are meant for the kind of listener who can only name a tune having heard the words. This year's LSO Christmas Concert, for example, ranged the full historical breadth of the repertoire, assuming from both its youthful and its grown up audience either an acquaintance with the pieces, or a desire to become acquainted.

"Resonemus laudibus", the third item on the programme and heartily sung by the London SymphonyChorus, is fourteenth century, and was well supplied with tasteful cod medieval music in Sir David Willcock's arrangement. Arrangers and composers leap at such chances to go Gothic, as did William Matthias in the rumba-organum of his anthem "A Babe is Born", heard later.

Potentially radical, such gestures usually turn out to be conservative; but how could it be otherwise when the full meaning of Christmas is felt in that roster of seasonal names - Willcocks, Ledger, Rutter, Sargent, Mrs C F Alexander - yearly adorning carol programmes worldwide?

In fact, there was to have been an unusual element in this year's concert: the counter-tenor voice of Brian Asawa. But he was indisposed, and his replacement, Robert Tear, offered a very different though no less welcome manner of preaching to the converted. This was the effect of his delivery of "Comfort Ye" from the Messiah, when Tear, dispensing with the score, sang directly to his audience in a mode of address as convivial and familiar as a rural vicar's sermon.

The style proved no less suited to Berio's movingly simple yet contemporary setting of the Appalachian folksong "I Wonder as I Wander", and to Michael Head's translation of the Christmas story to an English pastoral scene in "The Little Road to Bethlehem". Max Fuhrig, treble, sang the first verses, solo, of Darke's setting of Rossetti's "In the Bleak Mid-winter", and "Once in Royal David's City" to open the second half.

Somewhat subdued up to this point, audience participation gathered strength thereafter (doubtless inspired by Tear's rousing version of Stephen Adams's classic "The Holy City"), and imparted a goodly noise to "We Three Kings" and "O Come, all Ye Faithful", plus encores that included "The Twelve Days of Christmas". Guided by RichardHickox, the orchestra delivered some shapely playing. Serene flute solos in the Fantasia on "Greensleeves", and flute-like oboes in Rutter's "Shepherd's Pipe Carol" showed this was no busman's holiday. The LSC had two unaccompanied moments to themselves, in Edmund Rubbra's "Dormi Jesu", short and sweet, and "The Blessed Son of God", from the unjustly neglected Vaughan Williams cantata Hodie.

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