Opera + Classical Music Reviews

‘Hey for Christmas’ review – sacred and secular Yuletide music

22 December 2023

Siglo de Oro and Spinacino Consort recreate a 17th century Christmas house party full of both reverence and joy.

Hey for Christmas

Siglo de Oro & Spinacino Consort (Photo: Barry Creasy)

We all know those people who get antsy about Christmas becoming too secular; well, here’s a little secret: the season has always contained a spicy mix of Christian and pagan, the old Yuletide customs intertwining with the church’s more pious practices. Even Christmas carols (as opposed to Christmas hymns) are only a relatively recent feature of church services – before the late 19th century, they were music of the streets and taverns; they may or may not have had a Christian theme, but they were not considered ‘sacred’ music.

For Friday night’s presentation at Wigmore Hall, the vocal ensemble Siglo de Oro and the instrumental group Spinacino Consort imagined a Christmas house party at some point in the 17th century (presumably avoiding the joyless years around the middle of the century when Christmas was banned by Parliament), at which music both sacred and secular might have been performed by a particularly gifted (and numerous) family. The result was an evening of splendidly diverse music whose first-class performances conjured the peculiar gallimaufry that is Christmas, and left a charmed audience truly ready for the approaching festivities.

The members of Spinacino formed a ‘broken consort’ (a mixture of instruments, rather than a family) of violin, viola da gamba, lute/theorbo and recorders (occasionally augmented by Callum Armstrong’s period bagpipes and Tom Hollister’s drum and tambourine), which not only had a certain higgledy-piggledy authenticity about it, but also prevented the instrumental items from becoming too clinical. Their accounts of traditional music collected by John Playford were thus full of textural delight – Granny’s Delight and Paul’s Wharf  jigged along in a merry whirl full of contrasting timbres as different groups of instruments came and went; the insistent duple beat of A Wassail Tune was pressed home with the 17th century equivalent of rim shots from the drum; the mournful The Beggar Boy was replete with Irish embellishments in both recorder and violin; Dowland’s The Earl of Essex Galliard was beautifully mannered to highlight the jumps, ‘cadences’ and ‘postures’ of this most athletic of dances from a previous century.

“…an evening of splendidly diverse music…”

Hey for Christmas

Siglo de Oro (Photo: Chris Christadoulou)

The choral ensemble from Siglo de Oro was both tight and characterful, such that, while individual voices had their own colour, each contributed to a precisely managed blend. The fluid polyphony of Byrd’s a cappella O Magnum Mysterium was delivered with both warmth and accuracy, and its performance by the full ensemble contrasted nicely with that of In winter cold by the same composer, and the more relaxed, madrigal style was given bags of variation in tempo and dynamic by the soprano, alto and tenor soloists. This use of unaccompanied solo voices in combination also brought an intimacy to the accounts of the traditional As I outrode this enderes night (alto, tenor and bass) and the anonymous Sweet was the song the Virgin sang (all four soloists).

When singers and instrumentalists joined together, the timbral palette increased even more, such that Thomas Ravenscroft’s relentlessly Puritan and often somewhat dull Remember, O thou man had new life injected into it by dint of alternating soloists and chorus and changes in the instrumental mix; the whisper of theorbo and viola da gamba served only to augment the deeply personal nature of Martin Peerson’s Upon my lap my soveraigne sits, sung as a solo quartet. The varying shades of accompanying instruments worked well with soprano Hannah Ely’s solo item The Darkest Night in December, allowing her characterful (but not over-produced) voice to wind its way around the lovely Irish folksiness of the melody, and this contrasted extremely well with both alto Rebekah Jones’ elegant solo delivery of The truth sent from above (full marks here to Eric Thomas for the varied textures he summoned from his lute) and the lovely growly harmonies of Richard Smert’s Sir Christemas sung by the tenors, baritones and basses.

It was the rumbustious items, though, that delivered the most festal glee: Drive the cold winter away with unison voices and full instrumental ensemble, drum and bagpipes sent the audience off with a spring in their step at the end of the first half. The second half finished with an equal amount of seasonal cheer, beginning with Now to conclude our Christmas mirth – played as a processional bagpipe solo – segueing into the almost bawdy ballad Hey for Christmas in which all were enjoined to join the choruses and ‘…shake their bums’. The encore, Auld lang syne to a slightly different melody than usual (this should be used more often!) served as brandy butter on the delicious pudding. Welcome, Yule!

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‘Hey for Christmas’ review – sacred and secular Yuletide music