There are times of year when St John’s Smith Square so struggles for an audience that there can be more people on the platform than in paying seats. But an exception is its annual Christmas choral festival which sells out, functions as a showcase for the best in the business, and reminds you of the debt high-level British choral singing owes to Oxbridge chapel choirs: an Anglican tradition, of course, but training performers who then transport their talents across denominational boundaries.
It’s a process that sometimes seems under threat from funding cuts, but the sight of those packed audiences at Smith Square is encouragement to think that enough people find enough value in it all to guarantee survival. And the world would certainly be a poorer place if any of the choirs in this year’s festival closed down.
I managed to hear three, all different in approach to repertoire but differently impressive. One was Ex Cathedra, the outstanding semi-pro ensemble based in Birmingham and still run by the man who founded it 45 years ago, Jeffrey Skidmore. Ex Cathedra’s special virtue is a combination of exacting technique with humanity and warmth of sound: it sings to you like a collective friend. And it’s especially a friend to composers from the Midlands such as John Joubert, whose 90th birthday fell this year and was duly acknowledged here with some of his seasonal hits – including the classic Torches, which, though simple and straightforward, always makes an audience sit up and listen.
The choir of Clare College, Cambridge, under its dynamic young director Graham Ross, did Torches too, with comparable verve. But it did better still with Will Todd’s reassuringly contemplative My Lord has Come and William Mathias’s A Babe is Born – the latter sung with such incisive brilliance you’d never have known that the choir had only the night before flown back to Britain after a punishing tour of America. Such is the energy of youth.
The highlight of the Smith Square festival, though, was the neighbouring Cambridge Choir of Trinity College singing four of the six cantatas that comprise Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Conducted by Stephen Layton, it was a performance of arresting impact, done with bold attack and a strong, open sound – occasionally raw but fresh and bright. The soloists weren’t so remarkable; but the accompanying Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment supplied an A-team turnout that made all the difference – not least in the brass department. Bach’s demanding use of high-pitched trumpets in the Christmas Oratorio takes no prisoners, and it’s particularly tough on valveless Baroque instruments. They have the power to make or break the show, and these ones made it. With panache.
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