REVIEW: Kate Rusby has a hippo, a banjo, a Christmas pudding costume and a Holly Head for Christmas

Kate Rusby wearing her Holly Head, the title of her fifth Christmas album. Pictures: David Lindsay

Kate Rusby At Christmas, York Barbican, 18/12/2019

“HOW nice to be back in mighty Yorkshire,” said the Barnsley nightingale. “Don’t have to calm mi accent. Don’t have to worry about saying the word ‘mardy’.”

That said, there is nothing mardy about Kate Rusby At Christmas, her joyous celebration of South Yorkshire carols still sung heartily in pubs, complemented by Rusby’s own winter songs and a brace of novelty numbers.

It turned out Rusby was the only Yorkshire-born musician on stage, her sparkling green party dress twinkling like a Christmas tree in the forest of men in black: her folk band and regular winter guests, the “Brass Boys” quintet.

“Ruby Twosday”, the decorative reindeer, was there too, bedecked with fairy lights, her head nodding when Rusby asked her a series of questions. Rusby had been given the option of a “Yay” or “Nay” reindeer, and in keeping with the surge of positivity and humorous banter that accompanies these winter-warmer concerts, she chose the affirmative.

Hark, hark: Kate Rusby at Christmas

As evocative as the crisp sound of walking in newly settled snow, Hark Hark, from 2017’s Angels & Men, opened the set with the Brass Boys in situ, before Rusby explained the roots of these Christmas concerts, now in their 12th year, with Christmas album number five, to showcase.

Holly Head, so named by Rusby to equate her love of Christmas music with petrol heads’ love of cars, featured prominently in her two sets, each also sprinkled liberally with versions of While Shepherds Watched too. More than 30 exist, apparently, and Kate is working her merry way through them.

Here We Come A Wassailing and Sunny Bank (a variation on I Saw Three Ships) were early festive highs before the bleak midwinter’s chill of Lu Lay (aka The Coventry Carol) brought an eerie night air to the Barbican, Duncan Lyall’s Moog keyboard sending temperatures dropping. Not for long, however, as Rusby introduced her row of knitted miniature hippos to herald Hippo For Christmas, a particularly perky rendition of John Rox’s novelty wish-list song, parping tuba and all.

The album cover for Holly Head

Rusby’s own Christmas compositions are among her very best, never more so than this year’s newcomer, The Holly King, played early in the second set, where she evoked Clannad while stretching out fruitfully into folk-prog terrain.

Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo, a Canadian ditty by David Myles, wholly suited Rusby’s tightrope walk between melancholia and hope, and after a break for Damien O’Kane to lead the band through dexterous instrumentals and unexpected Christmas classics, Rusby steered us towards Christmas with an extended Hail Chime On, a delightful Walking In A Winter Wonderland and the latest heroic rescue mission for Barnsley’s Big Brave Bill.

No Rusby At Christmas show would be complete without the fancy-dress encore, and this year they really made a meal of it, Rusby dressing as a Christmas pudding, the Brass Boys as sprouts and O’Kane as, wait for it, a roast turkey for Sweet Bells and Yorkshire Merry Christmas.

Ruby Twosday was not the only one nodding in approval as Kate Rusby At Christmas grows ever better by the year.

Charles Hutchinson

The York Waits lay down the rules for Twelve Days of Christmas revels at NCEM

The York Waits: festive songs, carols and celebratory music at the NCEM

THE York Waits celebrate Christmas in tomorrow’s concert at the National Centre for Early Music, York, when they will be joined by singer Deborah Catterall.

The start of Christmas was traditionally announced at the entrances to York on December 21, St Thomas’s  Day, with the reading by the Sheriffs of the Yoole-girthol, with the Waits’ shawm band in attendance.

This proclamation declared “an amnesty to all nere-do-wells and unthrifty folk” and invited 12 days of merriment in the city.

The York Waits recreate this atmosphere with festive songs, carols and celebratory music from across mediaeval and Renaissance England and Europe, performed on loud and quiet wind consorts, bowed and plucked strings, the rustic bagpipes and vielle.

The York Waits will be in conversation at the NCEM at 7pm before their 7.30pm concert programme. Tickets cost £23, concessions £21, on 01904 658338 or at

REVIEW: Ebor Singers, National Centre for Early Music, York, 15/12/2019

Paul Gameson: director of Ebor Singers

Ebor Singers, Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 15

THIS was the Ebors’ now traditional performance of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, spiced with a selection of contemporary American carols and seasonal songs.

The Britten, given in the original all-female version, was accompanied by the harp of Rachel Dent, even to the extent of some optional improvising during the processional plainsongs. Her Interlude was a touch halting, but elsewhere she sustained a pleasing pulse.

The singing had its moments, though few were provided in the solo work where intonation was wayward. As a choir, the ladies made plentiful amends. There was a lovely legato in There Is No Rose and a direct, confident approach to This Little Babe. In contrast, the reverential ending to In Freezing Winter Night reflected the manger’s “humble pomp”.

The pair of soloists in Spring Carol chirped merrily. Deo Gracias was a little too rushed for its cross-currents to have maximum impact. Though it was good to have this music made available again, its overall effect was not as strong as it was last year.

In The Moon Of Wintertime, the evening’s subtitle, taken from the Canadian Huron carol, was also used by American composer Stephen Paulus. In the event, his modal tune was less attractive than the original (Jesous Ahatonhia), and he used a bowdlerized paraphrase of Edgar Middleton’s translation, which is much less down-to-earth than the native Indian version. Its last verse, however, was a model of choral control here.

The same composer’s Three Nativity Carols, surprisingly enjoying their UK premiere – Paulus died in 2104 – brought an engaging post-Britten style to some ancient texts. They were accompanied by oboe (Jane Wright) and harp (Dent). Syncopation jollied up The Holly & The Ivy, florid oboe counterpointed the slow rocking of This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings used a proper refrain to add colour to the mediaeval text, with the instruments dancing attendance.

Much of the rest was slow-moving and diction went to the wall. American audiences may love it, but Craig Hella Johnson’s pairing of Lo, How A Rose with Amanda McBroom’s The Rose (written for Bette Midler and covered by Westlife) did the lovely Praetorius tune no favours at all.

Hackneyed favourites by Lauridsen and Whitacre came and went and a Jake Runestad lullaby just picked itself in time to avoid a similar fate. It was left to Nico Muhly’s setting of Longfellow’s Snowflakes, with piano backing, to offer some true atmosphere, albeit out of a corner of the minimalist playbook. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas makes for a tacky ending – it should be dropped.

I know this was a Christmas concert, with all the festive sentimentality that implies, but overall I left feeling that this choir is coasting: it is capable of tackling something a lot less anodyne and a lot more challenging.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Fieri Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, 11/12/2019

Helen Charlston: “Some splendid coloratura”

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Fieri Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 11

SORRY to pour cold water on your show, chaps, but this was not the oratorio it was billed to be. Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, an Italian with Austrian forebears, described his theatrical piece of 1629, The Shepherds of Bethlehem, as a “dialogo recitativo” – a dialogue in musical speech – a forerunner of oratorio certainly, but not the real McCoy. That was still to come.

Now that’s cleared up, Kapsperger certainly made a hefty stab at dramatising the Christmas story and the five singers and four players of Fieri put up a pretty good case for it. So we had the shepherds and the angels battling for the spotlight, while the librettist – a pope-in-waiting – delivered unctuous praise of the present pope, Urban VIII, via a narrator.

What the work lacked in arias was pleasingly filled in with motets and other madrigal-style commentaries, mainly from an earlier generation of composers. So Hassler hinted at the Annunciation, Michael Praetorius’s rose bloomed again, Marenzio admired the Christ-child and Victoria evoked the mystery of it all.

Fieri bring plenty of meat to the table in this repertory. These are strong, modern voices quite without the preciousness once so treasured by early-music buffs, but smooth at the edges as well, so that their blend is exceptionally polished. Shading was less prevalent here. There was even some splendid coloratura from Hannah Ely and Helen Charlston, courtesy of Carissimi, and the instruments kept up tasty chatter behind it all.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Musical Society to perform serious and fun Christmas concert

Soprano soloist: Kasia Slawski

YORK Musical Society’s Christmas Concert will be held at St Lawrence Parish  Church, Lawrence Street, York, on December 14.

In a family-friendly programme ranging from the fun to the serious, the YMS chorus of 100-plus singers will perform choruses from Handel’s Messiah, joined by soprano soloist Kasia Slawski, from Leeds.

She has many York connections, having gained a BSc in accounting and an MA in music from the University of York, where she sang in the University Choir and Chamber Choir, performing as a soloist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Handel’s Israel In Egypt and Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers.

Kasia also sang with the Yorkshire Bach Choir and was a choral scholar at St Wilfrid’s, York, as well as at Leeds Cathedral from 2002 to 2012. She continues to sing in and around York while working as an accountant, proving she is good with notes all round.

The audience can join in with the choir and brass quintet for some carols, along with enjoying the choir’s rendition of several carols, both more and less familiar.  

In a first for YMS, Richard Shephard’s Mass for the Nativitywill be performed by a solo quartet drawn from the choir. The piece has strong York links: until earlier this year, Richard Shephard was YMS’s associate conductor and he is a former headmaster of the Minster School.

YMS will be conducted by John Bradbury, while David Pipe will accompany the choir on the organ and play solo pieces too.

York Brass Quintet will add to the 4pm festivities, playing seasonal favourites with an ensemble of two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba.

St Lawrence Parish Church, by the way, is York’s largest parish church, a fully heated Victorian building whose spire can be seen for miles around. Any profits from the concert, plus the retiring collection, will be donated to church funds. Tea and cake will be available in the parish room afterwards, again in aid of church funds.

Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568, at, in person from the Theatre Royal box office or on the door, priced at £10 for adults; £5, students and children over 12; free, children under 12, when accompanied by a paying adult. All seats are unreserved.

Charles Hutchinson