Never content to simply repeat a Christmas concert formula from one year to the next, the Sitwell Singers and conductor Malcolm Goldring on this occasion - St John's Church, Derby, UK, 16 December 2019 - opened proceedings by moving from the back of the church while giving the mediaeval 'Salutation Carol' appropriately robust treatment. The accumulated energy spilled over into a vigorous account of Mendelssohn's Frohlocket, ihr Völker.
Bob Chilcott featured strongly this year. His arrangement of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' treats the tune in the style of a chorale prelude, its rich textures contrasting with his more straightforward treatment of 'In Dulci Jubilo' a little later. There was more from him to end the second half.
Assistant Conductor David Henshall took over for Alan Bullard's Scots Nativity, a setting of a traditional text, wearing its Scottish colours lightly. Ken Burton's gentle Star of the Night was this year's nod to the repertoire of spirituals that have become a well-loved feature of the Sitwells' Christmas repertoire. Jim Clements' arrangement of the well-known Gabriel's Message continued the quiet, contemplative mood, so it was good to have a lively spirited reading of Walford Davies' arrangement of 'The Holly and the Ivy' to bring expressive variety, before Tamsin Jones' engaging Sing Lullaby, with its harmonies reminiscent of Peter Warlock.
Part 2 was more of a mixed bag. Malcolm Goldring's own arrangement of 'Silent Night' succeeds in harmonising the tune richly without swamping its essential simplicity. David Henshall returned to conduct Malcolm Sargent's 'Zither Carol', based on a traditional Czech tune, bringing out its jolly, homespun quality. Morten Lauridsen and Ola Gjeilo have both become popular contemporary composers of Christmas choral music. Lauridsen, in my experience, does tend towards a kind of all-purpose soft focus, and O Nata Lux is no exception. Gjeilo's Ave Generosa, on the other hand, is rather more sturdy than some of his other pieces, and got a reading to match. In between, a touching account of 'The Shepherds' Farewell' from L'Enfance du Christ was an apt acknowledgement of this year's Berlioz anniversary.
If the Sitwells' choice of programme was a little less adventurous than some years, there was still much to enjoy, not least the two concluding arrangements by Bob Chilcott which took us back to the spirituals tradition. 'Mighty Wonder' and 'Rise up Shepherd', with Andrew Smyth the laid-back, completely idiomatic soloist, brought the house down.
Copyright © 30 December 2019