Saint Bartholomew’s Choir: Concert of Carols and Festive Readings, Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road 15th December 2013
Once the urge subsides to run away upon seeing the words The Twelve Days of Christmas in print at a concert, Saint Bartholomew’s annual Christmas concert is well programmed, with a good mix of perennial favourites and lesser-known pieces and arrangements.
For those who haven’t previously heard of Saint Bartholomew’s Choir, they are among the few choirs in Ireland carrying on the unique Anglican choral tradition. In recent years they have introduced a girl’s choir to go with the ancient boys’ choir (both are joined by the same set of gentlemen), with both choirs are now of the same excellent standard.
The concert begins at the back of the church with gentlemen only for the plainchant Hodie Christus Natus est, the sort of music you are unfortunately unlikely to hear very often in modern Ireland. Following this is Once in Royal David’s City, complete with the traditional treble solo and procession up the aisles.
At this point, Tim Thurston takes to the lectern for the first time for his readings. Thurston, who presents Gloria on RTÉ Lyric FM each Sunday, has big shoes to fill. Part of the capacity audience is surely owed to the legacy left by Alan Stanford, who read at this concert every Christmas for twenty years. Thurston departs from Stanford’s well-worn script, aiming at higher literature with poems by Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy included, along with some of the choicest pieces of relevant scripture. His speaking is entertaining and his readings well-chosen, with the balance of old and new probably well struck by denying the regular attendees some of their favourites and sparing them some others they may know almost off by heart. He resists revolt by including Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Among the musical highlights of the service were Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day from the girls and men and Mathias’ Sir Christémas from the all-male contingent. The Mathias reveals one of the great miracles of children’s choirs: It is an extraordinary achievement to teach small children (the very oldest of the boys being probably thirteen of fourteen, with the average age considerably younger) to sing this complicated music with its asymmetric time signatures. Playing in 5 seems to be a skill beyond a significant proportion of conservatory-trained clarinetists, yet these boys manage it without any problem at all.
It is difficult to choose individual highlights as the standard is consistently good throughout. The balance among parts is superb, especially considering that there are only two altos out of the thirty-ish people singing at any one time. No one ever sticks out, or sounds as if they are either singing down or straining, and the sound is generally very beautiful, with good tuning. Tristan Russcher’s direction is top class and David Grealy is stylish and safe at the organ. Many of the less energetic pieces, however, are taken very briskly. While this has obvious benefits such as easing the regulation of breathing in long phrases and preventing mass suicide in The First Nowell, pieces such as Harold Darke’s wistful setting of In the Bleak Midwinter would certainly benefit from more space.
John Rutter’s arrangement of The Twelve Days of Christmas was transformed from a cruel and unusual form of torture into a thoroughly enjoyable ten minutes by the inspired decision to intersperse each verse with increasingly irate letters from the demented lover who has received all those ridiculous presents. This approach also throws good light on the music.
Although the programme is just a scratch under two hours long, with no break, the choir leaves the audience aching for Christmas after the encore of a thrillingly understated rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The Choirs of Saint Bartholomew’s are one of the great unknown assets of Irish music, and Saint Bartholomew’s Church is one of the most criminally neglected concert venues in Dublin.
Photo courtesy of St Bartholomew’s Church and Choir.
Hodie Christus natus est (plainchant)
Once in Royal David’s City (arr. Willcocks)
In the Bleak Midwinter Darke
Masters in this Hall arr. Willcocks
Good King Wenceslas arr. Reginald Jacques
The Holly and the Ivy arr. H. Walford Davies
Wexford Carol arr. Parshall
The First Nowell arr. Wilcocks
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol Rutter
Sir Christémas Mathias
Unto us is Born a Son arr. Wilcocks
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day Gardner
Remember O, Thou Man Chilcott
We Three Kings arr. Stopford
Suantraí arr. O’Carroll
Gaudete! arr. Chilcott
Mighty Wonder Chilcott
The Twelve Days of Christmas Rutter
O Holy Night Adam