An English Christmas Bristol Post review

Seldom have I enjoyed a Christmas concert as much as this one. BCS were on terrific form – probably the best I have heard them. Martin Firth, Bristol Post

Continuing their theme of enterprising programmes, Bristol Choral Society broke with tradition in replacing Handel’s Messiah with a programme of substantial works connected with Christmas. Seldom have I enjoyed a Christmas concert as much as this one. BCS were on terrific form – probably the best I have heard them. This may well have been due to a radical re-positioning of tenors and basses within the ensemble, enabling the entire chorus to be shifted forward. The effect was transformative: conductor Hilary Campbell seemed able to communicate every nuance in the music’s phrasing with immediate effect: the choir’s range of dynamic expression was hugely impressive – especially the several pianissimo phrase endings.
The programme worked at every level: in many ways it was a realisation of a very ‘English’ Christmas: the composers were English and the folk tunes woven into their works were again, thoroughly English (Sussex, Somerset and Herefordshire carols). The evening opened with Christmas Day by Gustav Holst – born in Cheltenham –a work similar to the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols which ended the concert. The same technique is employed by both composers of creating a more substantial work through a collage of familiar carols. Both works are enormously appealing, but the Holst is technically more assured, and the combination of carols together (quodlibet) is far more satisfying to this reviewer. Here the choir gave us a clear indication of what they are now capable – very confident singing, great clarity and balance, and uniform musical sensitivity.
For Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, the Choral Society were joined by harpist Anne Denholm. Denholm’s contribution was never short of outstanding – her solo ‘Interlude’ quite beguiling in its icy sonorities. This was the highlight of the evening, both musically and chorally.
The second part of the evening included Holst’s setting of Psalm 148, when the chorus were joined by the strings of the Bristol Ensemble (Director – Roger Huckle) who, as usual, gave a fine performance and excellent support to both soloists and chorus.
The ever-popular Fantasia on Christmas Carols (Ralph Vaughan Williams) brought the evening to a close. Here each traditional carol is presented and given varied treatment before a thrilling climax in each section, whilst the composer seems to delight in combining carols together and adding snippets of other carols discretely in the orchestral texture (The First Nowell).
Martin Firth, Bristol Post