Yule­tide joys

Thirty years ago, Ge­of­frey Smith was in­tro­duced to a real English Christmas and seeks its spirit this year

Country Life Every Week - - Performing Arts -

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

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