Music: Meet Clare, my constant Christmas companion

It felt as if I had a constant companion in the run-up to Christmas – or to be accurate, 30 companions, in that they were the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, whose profile has always been significant but never quite on the scale that it has achieved in the past year or so.

I heard them on home ground, in their own acoustically boxed-in chapel for an Advent carol service; in the Union Chapel, Islington, singing a Messiah with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment;
and yet again singing a Christmas concert at St John’s, Smith Square, as part of the choral festival that ran there in December. You could say I’m a fan.

But I’m also interested in the whole business of what’s been happening in the Oxbridge chapel choir world. Not so long ago its future seemed endangered: music was no longer a priority in schools, and voices of sufficient calibre weren’t coming forward in the number that they used to.

But the Oxbridge choirs are somehow flourishing, and Clare is a good example, under its impressive and still relatively new music director Graham Ross. Its latest, seasonal CD Veni Emmanuel (Harmonia Mundi) is a joy. Its broadcasts are worth tracking. And its Islington Messiah was a big event: packed out and excellently done, although the choir had been antiphonally divided into galleries so far away from one another that it left the voices vulnerable.

Ross’s speeds were breathless but exciting. His soloists included the countertenor Christopher Ainslie, whose calm, underplayed delivery, in which every nuance registered, was mesmerising. And for added atmosphere there was a light show (using, I suppose, equipment that the Union Chapel has for when it houses rock nights) tailored to the music, so that fierce, upbeat emotionality came bathed in red, more sombre numbers in cool blues, and resolute triumphalism in a golden glow of yellow. It was Christmas after all.

At Smith Square, half the programme was John Tavener’s perverse sequence of familiar carols re-set to his own (sometimes bizarre) new tunes called Ex Maria Virgine. A speciality of Clare choristers in that it was written for them, I can see why they perform it; and they do it brilliantly. But it’s not one of Tavener’s more loveable inventions, and I find the music fussy, awkward and irritating – much like David Hill’s arrangement of the Peter Warlock carol Bethlehem Down, which also featured in the programme. As originally written, it’s for unaccompanied voices, best heard at funereally slow speeds. But this arrangement adds an organ and embellishes the sombre mood with cheesy harmonies. Result: a gilded lily.

Maybe next year Clare will please me and go back to the original. Then I’ll have nothing at all to complain about.