Thirty years ago, Geoffrey Smith was introduced to a real English Christmas and seeks its spirit this year
Some 30 years ago, my prospective mother-in-law welcomed me into the family with a proper Yuletide gathering: drinks, nibbles, friends and neighbours as far as the eye could see. As a true-born son of the American midwest, where the holidays meant snowy fields, wideopen spaces and quiet, I was a little taken aback by this tide of bonhomie and mulled wine and, after a while, retreated to the study. In due course, my motherin-law came to tell me the coast was clear and beamed: ‘Well, you’ve been broken on the wheel of an english Christmas!’
In the years since, however, I’ve become a devotee of the english Christmas, appreciating both its rituals of family and community and the way those qualities are given musical expression, as rich and varied as the festival itself, with its mixture of jollity and reverence, mystery and plenty. even in an avowedly secular age, people still respond to the trad- itional strains that have evoked the Yuletide season for centuries, particularly in structures of historic beauty where music, architecture and faith become one.
In churches across the country, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols retains its power and remains one of the fixed points in my holiday calendar. For the special aura of old stone and timeless song, I’m always drawn to the magnificent Church of St Bartholomew the Great in ec1, which offers a variety of carol services throughout Advent (www.greatstbarts.com; 020– 7600 0440).
By contrast, the Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square, SW1 (020–7222 1061; www.sjss.org. uk), in its 31st year, is renowned for presenting an array of musical pleasure, a Yuletide banquet of treats, surprises and seasonal favourites in pristine Baroque splendour. Notable among its offerings from December 9 to 23 is In Honour of the Virgin, by the Cardinall’s musick, featuring marian settings by the likes of Byrd, Lassus and Victoria and concluding with Palestrina’s grand Magnificat primi toni.
German genius takes centre stage in a concert by La Nuova musica, including Bach cantatas, a Haydn mass for St Nicolas and mozart’s showpiece aria, Exultate, Jubilate, sure to be a Christmas cracker for virtuoso soprano Lucy Crowe. Crowning the festival in the grandest style will be Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah, which has become a kind of signature piece for conductor Stephen Layton, with the orchestra of the Age of enlightenment and a starry cast of singers, including Iestyn Davies.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Messiah is a signature piece for the whole Yuletide season, with performances up and down the land—in Cardiff, for instance, where the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the orchestra of Welsh National opera combine in St David’s Hall on December 13 (www.stdavidshallcardiff.co. uk; 029–2087 8444).
Messiah connoisseurs will note that the solo alto part will be sung, as in Handel’s premiere, by a mezzo-soprano—the
There is plenty on offer whether you’re seeking the massed-choir majesty of Messiah or the pure clarity of a choirboy’s carol