Entertaining Christmas concert from the Northern Chorale

Northern Chorale: Waits, Wassailers and Star Singers

Rutter: Brother Heinrich’s Christmas

Music by Mendelssohn and arrangements of traditional carols

Conducted by Monika Smith, with Jonathan Berkahn (piano and organ), Elizabeth Warren (oboe) and Penny Miles (bassoon)

St. Barnabas Church, Khandallah

Sunday, 30 November 2014, 2.30pm

It was a new take on Christmas music to present a selection of songs that were traditionally sung by carollers in their neighbourhoods, expecting to be rewarded with food and drink.  Monika Smith’s brief, entertaining introductions to the songs made it clear that it was often the reward that was the focus, rather than the music.

The concert opened with a traditional carol, ‘Resonet in laudibus’ sung as a processional.  This was followed by the well-known ‘Sleepers Wake’, but in Mendelssohn’s version rather than the more familiar Bach setting.  Here I found the piano rather too loud, and thought the organ would have been a more appropriate accompanying instrument, given that the version was from the oratorio St. Paul, in which there would have been orchestra.

The carol ‘Up!  Good Christen folk and listen’ I found too slow compared with other performances I have heard.  It made the carol seem rather dull, and the choir lacking in energy.  However, this aspect improved during the concert, not least in Stainer’s version of ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ and ‘Here we come a-wassailing’.  This last featured some solos from choir members – not of an even standard.  After another wait carol, arranged by David Willcocks, we came to some German Sternsingerlied, or Star Singers Songs.

Die Heilige Königen, from Bavaria, is traditionallysung by children carrying a large star on a pole – it was duly held by a choir member.  The singing in these folksy songs was more cohesive.  The next one was quite humorous, with complaints about having an ox in the stable with the baby.  It was sung in a characteristic folksy manner, with especially pleasing singing from the women of the choir.  What followed was a folksong from Silesia, in which the women sing, representing Mary who asks her husband for assistance, as you would if rocking a cradle on a cold, windy mountain-top.  However, his fingers are too frozen to help.  The women began well, but the singing became rather dull, and the attacks at the beginning of phrases were not good.

The lengthy Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Gloucestershire Wassail had unison singing of considerable gusto.  Despite some slight intonation wobbles, the carol was sung well, and the performance was enlivened by large cardboard animals, drawn with great accuracy, parading at the back of the choir at appropriate moments.

John Rutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas is delightful, but does not contain a lot of singing for the choir, though their contribution was good.   The story, capably narrated by several choir members is full of delight, as are Rutter’s piano accompaniment and especially the use of the oboe and the bassoon, the latter representing the donkey Sigismund, also  represented by a large stuffed donkey, who periodically took his place in the  choir.  His part in assisting Heinrich with the writing of ‘In dulci jubilo’ is amusingly rendered.

A couple of audience carols accompanied on organ presaged the last item ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, which a false entry from the men managed to turn into somewhat of a shambles. But perhaps it was all part of the fun.



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