Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Keeping Christmas in its heart: Benedict Sheehan’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

14 December 2022

Even Scrooge would have liked this seasonal performance.

The BBC Singers, Mel Giedroyc & Bob Chilcott (Photo: Mark Allan)

The BBC Singers were on fine form on Wednesday evening at Milton Court for their presentation of American composer Benedict Sheehan’s musically enhanced version of Dickens’ timeless morality tale.

First up, though, was a short first half of one-off carols old and new, which, under the their Principal Guest Conductor, Bob Chilcott, were given some lively and intelligent accounts, confirming that the ensemble these days is responsive and artful, and has overcome its reputation for not always producing a well blended sound.

Old favourites Wishart’s Alleluya, a new work is come on hand and Willcocks’s arrangement of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day were given brisk and nuanced performances., and the newer works (Lucy Walker’s There is no rose, B.E. Boykin’s arrangement of Coventry Carol, Suzzie Vango’s Gaudete and Caroline Shaw’s The Children’s Eye) all received accounts that made one instantly want to have recordings for the collection. Boykin’s close harmony and Vango’s syncopated approaches to the two mediaeval texts were attractively anachronistic; Shaw’s setting of Stevenson’s poetry made for some delicate choral support of Nancy Cole’s charming solo lines, but the star, here, was Walker’s piece: one of the instant hit factors of a good carol is a hummable melody with enough shape to make it interesting, and Emma Tring’s gorgeously floated soprano solo pushed all the buttons here. The set was rounded off with Ben Parry’s arrangement of Jingle Bells; given the song’s origins, and Parry’s glitzy treatment, it really needs to be performed with full Uncle Sam stylings: they were mostly there, but there was still just a hint ofdeshing through the sneoh“.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen more than any of Dickens’ works, and it has seen its fair share of musical versions, including The Muppets’ classic 1992 movie and this year’s Spirited with Will Ferrell. There’s something about the tale, though, notwithstanding the great performances by the likes of Sim, Finney or Murray, that makes you want to hear it rather than see it. Dickens himself made readings of the abbreviated version popular, and Simon Callow’s regular recitations have become evergreen classics. It’s almost certainly the delight one has in Dickens’ narrative style – the very opening “Marley was dead: to begin with” makes you want to curl up with a festive drink, and let the narrator – and your imagination – do all the work.

“…made one instantly want to have recordings for the collection”

The BBC Singers & Mel Giedroyc (Photo: Mark Allan)

Sheehan’s adaptation (this was its UK première; it has recently received performances in the USA, and an album of it was released in September) clearly has all this in mind. An abridged version of the text is spoken by the narrator, and Sheehan’s music is used as quietly hummed ‘atmosphere’, to punctuate the text, or as appropriately placed stand-alone carols serving as commentary (a jolly arrangement of Deck the Hall, for example, for Christmas at the house of Scrooge’s nephew).

The whole fusion of Christmas tropes works brilliantly, and it’s no wonder that the BBC has chosen to broadcast it later this week. Mel Giedroyc took the role of narrator, and gave us an excellent performance (her interpretation of Scrooge’s unbidden laughs was magnificent); she was occasionally a little swamped by the choral underlay, but this is a small quibble, and doubtless all this will be sorted out by the engineers before broadcast.

It’s Sheehan’s music, though, that’s inspired. The ‘atmosphere’ material is as you might expect – often built chords or wandering melodies that, in less opulent audio only productions might be played on a synth. But even here there’s cleverness: sometimes there are words – repetitions of Dickens’ text (“decrease the surplus population”) – or just an apposite line from a carol or passage of scripture; the full on wordless jig at Fezziwig’s party is great fun. A deal of skill has been applied to the choral/narration laminations (such as the fading in and out of In dulci jubilo during the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present). The stand alone carols are either Sheehan’s arrangements of well-known carols (such as God rest you merry, gentlemen) or they’re new compositions; either way, they’re musically highly approachable – clearly influenced by 20th century harmonic styles, but still comfortingly familiar. Indeed, it is to be hoped that OUP (who are publishing the complete score) might release these as one-offs: Sheehan’s entirely new setting of Ravenscroft’s Remember, O thou man is a particular delight.

• The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 16 December at 19:30

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