There were subtle seasonal flavours from the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre.
There is something satisfying about a Christmas concert that gives you a seasonal flavour without being too obvious about it, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sakari Oramo on Friday evening hit the spot with precision.
Sibelius’ Rakastava isn’t an obvious festive choice, but its portrayal of lovers meeting and parting through opulent string textures occasionally tinged with Sibelius’ trademark uncomfortable astringencies provided a spiced wine aperitif for the more obviously Christmassy fare to come. It’s a short work, but Orama and the orchestra packed a lot of contrast into its 13 minutes, bringing out its moods to the full through adroit use of texture, dynamic and tempo from the wistful violin melody in ‘The Lover’, through the jolly ‘brisk walk’ of ‘The Way of the Lover’ to the yearning parting conversations between low and high strings in ‘Good Night… Farewell’.
Britten’s St Nicolas charts Santa Claus’ backstory – as a pious prodigy, a sanctimonious ship’s passenger, Bishop of Myra, a miracle worker, and finally a saint. Written for Lancing College, the work has an exterior naïveté to it that belies its underlying complexity. Robin Tritschler (wearing an appropriately episcopal purple tie) took the lead, his lyric tenor voice absolutely perfect for the role: warm and soft (nonetheless carrying well over the rich orchestral tone) for Nicolas’ compassionate ‘poor man’, slightly husky in the lower register demanded by his opening prayer, but displaying a solid quality for his ringing ‘God be glorified’. The BBC Symphony Chorus, although cut to a smaller size due to social distancing, were nonetheless carefully balanced and co-ordinated, and still capable of a good portion of welly for ‘’Come, stranger sent from God’, as well as some impressive dynamic shifts throughout. The sopranos and altos shone in ‘The Birth of Nicolas’, managing to instil this pastiche with clarity and accuracy, yet retain a sense of fun. The tenors and basses were less dramatically successful in the storm scene: the sailors’ terror felt a little too rehearsed and polite, and a little more disarray over ‘Lost!’ would have been welcome. Finchley Children’s Music Group supplied the children’s chorus, pickled boys and the young Nicolas from the gallery with their usual skill, delivering Britten’s artful artlessness with well judged accuracy. Oramo had clearly got inside the piece, and his direction demonstrated this, as he conjured, from the odd ‘school orchestra’ collection of instrumental forces, the peculiar nature of the work: a range of emotional vignettes held within a slightly prissy, Anglican framework.
“There is something satisfying about a Christmas concert that gives you a seasonal flavour without being too obvious about it…”
By contrast, Gerald Finzi’s lush In terra pax carries no hint of emotional constipation, and it is surprising, given its pastoral radiance and economic orchestral scoring (strings, harp and cymbals) that it isn’t more popular. Telling the story of the angel and the shepherds through Robert Bridges’ lovely poem Noel: Christmas Eve 1913, it is full of rich string harmonies, gorgeous bell pealing choruses (‘Glory to God’), a breathtaking soprano angel entry, and a narrator part that any baritone would exchange a Christmas stocking for. Benson Wilson, though, had clearly reserved some of his Christmas treats for everyone, as he delivered the part with a voice that was silky smooth, and honey rich: a true delight to hear against the orchestra’s warm string tone and the chorus’ intelligently controlled dynamics; his final, floated “…aspect of th’ eternal silence” was special indeed. Ailish Tynan is always a joy to listen to, and she did not disappoint: her sweet bell-like entry on the angel’s “Fear not” and her seraphic “a Saviour which is Christ the Lord” added the twinkling lights to this hugely enjoyable Christmas display.