REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on University of York Choir & Baroque Ensemble’s Christmas concert

Robert Hollingworth: Conductor of the University of York’s largest choir

University of York Choir & Baroque Ensemble, Central Hall, University of York, November 30

CHRISTMAS music of the Baroque and the 20th century were contrasted here in the five sections of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit and four carol-anthems by Howells.

Interwoven with these were five extracts from A Child’s Christmas In Wales by Dylan Thomas. It was an ingenious idea, although none of these strands had much in common beyond the seasonal message.

Robert Hollingworth, who is now conductor of this choir, the university’s largest, read the passages from Thomas’s nostalgic view of a childhood Christmas, blanket-wrapped in an armchair and adopting an impressive Welsh lilt (that softened a bit towards the end). It was cosy, fireside stuff, with larger-than-life characters springing from the pages.

Charpentier’s late-17th century mass is almost balletic in its attempt to appeal to popular taste. The Baroque Ensemble, with guests leading three of its string sections, responded stylishly, with keen rhythm and taut ensemble.

The choir did not catch quite the same sense of urgency, perhaps feeling that Hollingworth’s baton was directed more at the players. That said, the tempo changes in the middle of the Credo were well managed. Alexander Kyle took over conducting for the final two sections, including a surprisingly jaunty Agnus Dei.

Variety came with several passages from a semi-chorus that additionally supplied soloists, who were at their most appealing when sopranos intertwined with recorders. A choir this size ranged on three flanks is always going to have difficulties with blend, especially in the very dry acoustic of Central Hall.

So, it was a pity that the least-known – and most recent – of the Howells pieces, Long, Long Ago, came first, before the choir had found its feet.

Here Is The Little Door, conducted by Kyle, was the best-shaped of the Howells. In contrast, A Spotless Rose was a little too fast for there to be no feel of the bar-line and the crunchy harmonies at the end, symptomatic of icy winter, were fudged. Bo Holten’s First Snow made an effective finisher.

Hollingworth is deservedly recognised as a first-class choir trainer. He will need just a little longer to stamp his mark on this choir. Watch this space.

Review by Martin Dreyer