United Kingdom Music for Christmas – Light and Gold: Philip Higham (cello), SCO Chorus / Gregory Batsleer (conductor), Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 20.12.2017. (SRT)
RSNO Christmas Concert: Amit Walkey (treble solo), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Christopher Bell (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.12.2017. (SRT)
Edinburgh is very lucky to have such a variety of Christmas music on offer. Every year I go to only a fraction of what’s available, and this year that included the Dunedin Consort’s gold-plated Messiah. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus’s annual Christmas concert (without the orchestra) is always worth catching too, however.
This year their selection was varied and typically intelligent, with a festive atmosphere throughout, if not always explicitly festive content. They began with a radiant Mendelssohn Frohlocket, which resonated through Greyfriars Kirk with bell-like clarity and a wonderful sense of joy, and they brought beautiful warmth to classics like Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, as well as a really impressive Scottish premiere of Remember Bethlehem by Richard Wilberforce. I though their selection of Bruckner motets worked particularly well, showing an understanding of the words, particularly in Virga Jesse, and of the acoustic, where they swelled to fit the church’s space very impressively.
They were quick to hit their max, though, meaning that several times their volume was at the point where they had nowhere else to go. Furthermore, their pitching, normally one of their strong points, was allowed to slip in some of the longer numbers, noticeably in the two hymns by Johannes Eccard and in Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, which was otherwise ethereally beautiful with an especially strong underpinning from the basses. However, they finished with a beautifully immersive performance of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque; immersive because they sang it while spread around the audience throughout the church. They’ve done this before, but the effect is always magical, and it made Whitacre’s squelchy harmonies and progressions (of which I am often sceptical) come alive in a way that convinced even me.
Instrumental variety was provided by four solo cello numbers from Philip Higham, the SCO’s principal cello, ranging from the Baroque austerity of Domenico Gabrieli and the songfulness of Bach, through to the throbbing Romanticism of Reger and the lean cantabile of Hans Gál. It may have not have been particularly festive, but when it’s as musically intelligent as this it’d be churlish to complain.
More overtly popular entertainment was on offer in the RSNO’s annual Christmas concert across town in the Usher Hall. Conductor Christopher Bell is mostly known in this neck of the woods for his work with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the National Youth Choir of Scotland. He’s a showman for whom no ounce of applause must remain unmilked. However, I have to admit to being a sucker for those big symphonic carol medleys by Malcolm Arnold and Leroy Anderson, always played wonderfully by the RSNO, and watching The Snowman while the orchestra accompanies never becomes dull, despite their doing it every year. Furthermore, the children I was with absolutely loved the singing and the action songs, so I will pack away my humbug and wish you a Merry Christmas.