Every year, it seems, I comment on the Sitwell Singers' canny blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar in their Christmas concerts. Conductor Dexter Drown slotted readily into the pattern when he arrived last year, and looks set to maintain it - St John's Church, Derby, 11 December 2023.
On the familiar side, there was the steady, thoughtful account of Boris Ord's Adam Lay Ybounden that opened the evening. 'Gabriel's Message' and 'Sing Lullaby' were sung to the well-loved Basque tunes we now associate with them, the first arranged by Jim Clements, with a withdrawn ending, well sustained here, the second by David Hill, with a gently hummed last verse. In J S Bach's arrangement of 'In Dulci Jubilo', the individual verses were well characterised, and Andrew Gant's arrangement of the German carol 'Still, Still, Still', a perfectly-crafted setting of an unassuming jewel, got a performance to match.
Bigger-scale pieces included Peter Skellern's jazzy So Said The Angel, sung with animated precision, and John Tavener's imposing God Is With Us, the solo chant passages given the necessary flexibility, and the graded dynamics of the full choral sections richly sonorous, though the shattering organ chords at the end were omitted with no explanation.
Kenneth Leighton's evergreen Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child (to the text of the so-called 'Coventry Carol'), caught the gentle, slightly apprehensive atmosphere, with the verse describing Herod's rage forcefully projected. The bold acclamations and withdrawn moments of Richard Rodney Bennett's On Christmas Day To My Heart were well balanced, and Tavener's The Lamb had a nice sense of flow, as did Robert Walker's rhythmically elusive, deeply thoughtful In The Bleak Midwinter - an original setting, not an arrangement of Holst's tune.
And there was merry-making to end each half. Andrew Carter's witty arrangement of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' slips in a few teasing musical references: the seven swans a-swimming are joined by another famous musical swan; the ladies dancing on day nine move elegantly to a snatch of Johann Strauss II's Emperor Waltz, and there's a last-minute nod to The Nutcracker on the twelfth day - all of them made their mark without being heavily underlined. The choir lapped up Ralph Allwood's equally jolly treatment of both 'Jingle Bells' and 'We wish you a merry Christmas'. A shout-out, too, to bass and deputy conductor David Henshaw for climbing the steps to the organ loft at a number of points in the evening when called upon.
Copyright © 26 December 2023