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Review: Carols By Candlelight, Usher Hall

THERE was a sense of pomp at the Usher Hall last night. The performers of Carols By Candlelight not only dressed for the occasion, but quite literally pulled out all the stops with a series of melodies ideally suited to the venue's 97-year-old organ too.

The second in a double bill of favourite Christmas music presented by theatre promoter Raymond Gubbay, Tuesday evening playing host to a relatively modern 'White Christmas' theme, Carols By Candlelight adhered firmly to a very Victorian image of Christmas entertainment, and was all the better for it.

Performing a light and engaging set comprised of excerpts of Handel, Bach and Mozart interspersed with festive classics such as O Come All Ye Faithful and Once In Royal David's City, the ensemble created a warm, jovial atmosphere.

Somewhat more straight laced than Tuesday's ebullient cast, there was still room for an opening run of truly awful stand-up jokes from conductor Gareth Hancock and a little physical comedy from soloist Gail Pearson as she made space for her immense skirts.

Clad in a burgundy 18th century hooped gown to match the finery of the bewigged and stockinged Mozart Festival Orchestra, Pearson managed her parts with confidence and grace. Her final piece, Handel's Let The Bright Seraphim, allowed the soprano to show off her voice as she delicately worked through the demands of the score.

Taking the evening firmly in hand, Hancock had a tight reign on the orchestra as well as enticing an excellent performance from amateur choir Cadenza. Following Hancock's cues remarkably well, Cadenza came into their own with a series of beautifully constructed harmonies, particularly during the better known carols; Walford Davies' arrangement of The Holly And The Ivy standing out for its intricacy and a delightful solo from one of their number for the beginning of Silent Night.

Working the audience in much the same firm, yet friendly, manner with which he treated the ensemble, Hancock guided the crowd through 11 popular carols with the aid of song sheets and some competitive encouragement, especially during the two-part vocal division of Good King Wenceslas.

The laid-back enthusiasm of the audience, however, rather made Hancock's early, woeful attempts at Christmas puns rather redundant.

Supporting the production with a cohesive and assured sense of unity, the orchestra provided an outstanding rendition of Corelli's Allegro and Pastorale from Christmas Concerto led by First Violinist Steven Wilkie. Their seasoned performance formed a firm bedrock for the ensemble to work from, creating a harmonious and well balanced sound. Organist Jonathan Scott's contribution, on the harpsichord and organ, dovetailed well with the strings and percussion rather than competing for space.

There will always be an argument for the passing down of Silent Night and Hark The Herald Angels, on a dodgy piano over mulled wine in an eccentric relative's living room, but Carols By Candlelight succeeded in giving a sublime introduction to the original staging of the music as well as providing period context.

Even if it does involve the orchestra putting on the sort of outfit that encourages one to start making sneaky Scarlet Pimpernel jokes during quiet moments.

 
 
 

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