United Kingdom Music for Christmas: Sharon Griffiths (harp), SCO Chorus, Gregory Batsleer (conductor), Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 15.12.2016. (SRT)
Christmas music by Britten, Poulenc, Macmillan, Byrd, Tavener, Dowland and Lauridsen
The SCO Chorus have had their own Christmas concert for a couple of years now, and it’s the only major concert in the SCO season that doesn’t normally feature any of the orchestra’s musicians (with an odd exception, such as Sharron Griffiths’ marvellously fluid harp tonight). Such a thing would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, and the fact that it’s now a pretty regular fixture can only be testament to the advances in quality that the choir has made under their director Gregory Batsleer. Batsleer has worked wonders with both the SCO and RSNO choruses over the last few years, and I’ve regularly singled out the SCO chorus for praise in these pages, most recently for their excellent Israel in Egypt last month.
Hearing them alongside the orchestra is great, but you can best judge their quality when they’re singing alone and exposed in a (mostly) a cappella programme like this. Gratifyingly, they passed with flying colours. They played their strongest card first with the ladies giving a properly world class performance of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Standing at the back of Greyfriars Kirk, behind the audience, they sang the opening lines of the Procession with thrilling confidence and total unanimity, a standard they kept up throughout. Their self-assurance fuelled the audience’s confidence in them, and it helped that the sound fitted the resonant acoustic of the church brilliantly, carefully tailored for maximum effect. Climaxing in a transportingly beautiful account of ‘Bulalow’, this was a performance worthy of comparison with that of any professional choir I’ve heard.
They were joined by the men for the rest of the programme, and very successfully, too. Where Britten’s Ceremony is mostly bright and wide-eyed in tone, Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël are much more dimly lit, their squelchy harmonies hinting more at the darker elements of the story of the incarnation. The chorus captured all of these in the first three movements, before casting them off for a burst of light in the final ‘Hodie Cristus natus est’.
A carefully crafted sequence of pieces by Byrd, Tavener and Dowland made for a thoughtful set, and the concert ended with a performance of Lauridsen’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ that didn’t wallow in the gloop.
Not everything was perfect. The tuning slipped a little in Macmillan’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’, and Batsleer’s tempo for the end of Tavener’s ‘The Lamb’ (both verses) were so slow that the whole thing threatened to grind to a halt. Those were only small blotches, though. This is a chorus currently performing better than I’ve heard them in years, and long may that continue.