United Kingdom Christmas music from Thomas Tallis, Bruckner and various composers: Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus / Ben Parry (conductor). Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 19.12.2019. (SRT)
It is saying something when what is consistently the first concert of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra season to sell out doesn’t even feature the orchestra. I am referring to this, the SCO Chorus’s Christmas concert which, for several years in a row now, has sold out its Edinburgh concert well in advance and has thus carved out a distinct identity for itself in the SCO’s year. It is packed out for several reasons: some of them are undoubtedly musical, and some are because it suits the acoustic and atmosphere of Greyfriars Kirk so well. I would speculate also, however, that for many people it is now a distinct and anticipated part of Edinburgh’s annual Christmas season, and a peaceful haven from the mayhem of Princes Street, only a few minutes’ walk away.
This year, however, Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer stepped aside to make way for a man who preceded him in the job. Ben Parry directed the SCO Chorus in the mid-1990s, before my time of hearing them began, and has now gone on to do many great things in British choral life, so it is a nice touch to invite him back for what has become a key date in the chorus’s year. He curated a lovely programme which centred around the Virgin Mary and, in a nicely appropriate touch, more than half of the composers were women. I didn’t love it all – for all that it was well sung, Kerry Andrew’s ‘Hevene Quene’ sounded quite clumsily composed – but much of the repertoire showcased the chorus’s talents very well. Poston’s ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ is well-loved but features some very exposed writing, yet it demonstrated how impeccable the chorus’s tuning can be, as did Sally Beamish’s ‘In the Stillness’, a piece of uncharacteristically beautiful simplicity for her. Margaret Rizza’s ‘Mary Slept’ was ambitiously structured and beautifully realised, swinging from delicate lyricism to spine-tingling brightness, as was Parry’s own multi-textured setting of ‘There is No Rose’.
They sang James MacMillan’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’ with luminous confidence, while Bruckner’s ‘Ave Maria’ showcased the pearly sound of the sopranos. Thomas Tallis’s Puer natus est nobis mass, acting as the scaffold around which the concert was structured, filled the sixteenth century space with joyous brightness, though I smiled to think what the Reformation fathers who founded the church would have thought of a Latin mass being sung in their building.
The programme also had a lovely circularity to it: Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Hodie aperuit’ made a magical procession as they entered, the sopranos singing the plainchant while the lower voices hummed a constant harmony; while Jan Sandström’s take on Praetorius’s ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ ended the concert with the chorus encircling the audience, Parry directing from the centre, Sandström’s tingling suspensions sounding even better when you are surrounded by them on all sides. Thus the concert began and ended in a cloud of harmonies, tapping into the mystery of the season, and confirming again how capable the chorus are of turning this concert into something truly magical.