WITHDRAWAL symptoms were widespread last year when Carols By Candlelight succumbed to Covid. For it has become a tradition without which no York Yuletide is complete.
This year it was back with a vengeance, transplanted from the Chapter House to the Nave of the Minster to allow a larger audience. Even if the candles did not flicker quite so intimately, the move was a resounding success: the building’s wide-open spaces were encouraged to co-operate.
Musical director Benjamin Morris had chosen a typically eclectic programme. Admirably, more than half of the 18 choral pieces were either composed or arranged by living musicians. In addition to the main choir, we enjoyed the Chapter House Youth Choir, conducted by Charlie Gowers-Smith, the traditional Handbell Ringers and three organ interludes from Asher Oliver.
The combined choirs opened with Andrew Carter’s tasteful arrangement of the Advent plainsong hymn, Veni Emmanuel, sung in procession. The Advent responsory that followed featured a beautifully crystalline soprano soloist (unnamed). Muscular contrasts came with Joubert’s Torches and in the crisp syncopation of Matthias’s arrangement of Sir Christèmas, the oldest carol here and reaching back to the 15th century.
At the other end of the spectrum, we had Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting of William Blake’s My Guardian Angel, with its cleverly repeating Alleluia, sung by the combined choirs. Even more atmospheric was Holst’s In The Bleak Midwinter, with the alternating choirs widely spaced. The sweet harmonies of Sally Beamish’s In The Stillness stood up well alongside Warlock’s tasty Bethlehem Down.
The choir’s final group was the best of all. After tenderly caressing The Shepherds’ Farewell, from Berlioz’s ‘L’enfance du Christ’, there was a lovely calm in Nicola LeFanu’s Saint Ita’s Lullaby and much feeling in Rutter’s melodious Candlelight Carol. We finished as we began, with founder-director Andrew Carter’s Make We Merry, spirited and heart-warming.
Along the way, the Handbell Ringers brought their mystifying skills to bear on four numbers, with Carter’s arrangement of Good King Wenceslas and John Hastie’s of We Wish You A Merry Christmas drawing especially warm applause.
The Youth Choir launched into the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Yorkshire Wassail with special vigour. Oliver’s three contributions were gracefully restrained – we might have had a little more in the way of fireworks – although he had to do battle with a reed stop on the newly-restored organ speaking rather less than cleanly.
At ten minutes less than two hours despite no interval, the concert might have been a touch shorter for audience comfort in the chill, but it was wonderfully energising to have this great tradition back where it belonged.
Review by Martin Dreyer
Next performance by Chapter House Choir: Festival of Carols, St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, December 18, 7.30pm.