Tenebrae, conducted by Nigel Short, is one of the UK's leading chamber choirs, and its appearance at the Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall [19 December 2023] was unmissable.
'A Christmas Conversation' was not your average Christmas concert, though. In and around the choral items was threaded a commentary by writer Garth Bardsley, delivered with gentle warmth, and some edginess when required, by actor Clive Mantle. Bardsley's sequence of vignettes explored, as he stated in the downloadable programme, 'Christmases both real and imagined ... to reflect upon what Christmas means to us, what it signifies, in an increasingly secular world'. There were laughs as well as deeply poignant moments, and with a couple of clear exceptions, it seems highly probable that some of them, at least, were informed by personal reminiscences, though this was not explicitly stated.
A graceful, lilting account of 'In Dulci Jubilo', in Robert Lucas de Pearsall's well-loved double-choir arrangement, began with the choir off-stage, processing on as they sang - a perfect example of how to grab an audience's attention quietly. Other familiar numbers included a sprightly account of Charles Wood's arrangement of 'Ding Dong! Merrily on High', and David Willcocks' of 'Once in Royal David's City', complete with solo soprano opening verse, after Bardsley had given us a brief guide to the responsibility and nerves that have gone with it over the years, not to mention the subtly vicious internal choir politics that sometimes attended the choice of singer. Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter was performed with a simplicity that clearly held the audience spellbound, as did Bardsley's meditation on the significance of frozen ground. For all its sophistication, Jonathan Rathbone's arrangement of 'Silent Night' didn't fight or overwhelm the original's simplicity.
In Howells' Sing Lullaby, the choir captured note of gentle anguish at the heart of its gently floating sound-world. Ben Parry's 'Flame' saw the choir dispersed round sides of auditorium as well as on stage, to mesmerising effect, and The Aldeburgh Carol, which he composed for the Britten centenary in 2013, brought gentle crooning from the choir, with a solo quartet at the back of the stage; I wondered if this was a conscious nod to Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin. In June Collin's The Quiet Heart, outbursts erupted into the stillness; Jan Sandström worked his spine-tingling magic on the German carol 'Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen'; while the performmance of Bob Chilcott's contemporary classic, 'The Shepherd's Carol', haunted me all the way home.
Ben Parry was also represented by two of the secular items. His version of 'Jingle Bells' gives the tune a lively scat accompaniment, peppered with some slippery key-shifts, adroitly navigated here. Nigel Short and three choir members formed a close-harmony quartet for 'Christmas Cards', a witty cabaret number in which Parry takes a wry look at the tendency of cards to gradually take over every room (and I mean every room) in the house. Meanwhile, Ian Humphris dropped a whole menagerie of animal noises into his knockabout version of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas', delivered with panache and a complete lack of self-consciousness.
Bardsley's commentary took in such varied topics as hope; dealing with school bullies; the World War One Christmas truce, and an astonishing World War Two story he heard from his grandfather; popular Christmas films; Dickens (of course) and various Christmas traditions, including carol singers, wassailers, presents, decorations and Christmas lights. (No blue ones, please - Bardsley insisted these belong only on the roofs of police cars.) Finally, he and Clive Mantle suggested that we could make more of an effort to be nice to each other on more than just one day a year, before bidding us savour the phrase 'wend our way' as we left the concert hall.
To end the evening, Nigel Short's own arrangement of 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' was brightly delivered, followed by Jonathan Rathbone's setting of Thomas Hardy's 'The Oxen', sending us out to wend our way home as he touchingly joined the poet in a tentative expression of hope.
Copyright © 2 January 2024