Christmas is a time when people want to hear a decent choir, and it’s the time when decent choirs sweep by the coachload into London for the spotlit choral platform that St John’s Smith Square runs throughout the festive period.
Night after night they come, doing the standard repertoire of awestruck shepherds, Virgin Births and wassailing (a word that passes no one’s lips except in late December) with excursions into less familiar territory, some of it new, some old. And it provides a chance you wouldn’t get at any other time of year to make comparisons: a choral stock-take of who’s doing well, who’s struggling to keep up, who has real ambition as opposed to marking time. And the results can be surprising.
For example, in the space of a few days I heard two of the longstanding Oxbridge men-and-boys choirs – Christ Church and New College, Oxford – plus the relatively new, mixed-voice one (females on the top lines) of Clare College, Cambridge. And Clare beat its more traditional rivals hands down. Everything it sang felt stable, confident, secure. The sound was warm and balanced, and the presentation was superb under conductor Graham Ross – a young, entrepreneurial music director whose programme sparkled, in a way that those of Christ Church (which was dithering and awkward by comparison, with raw sounds from the trebles) and New College didn’t.
That said, the very best singing I heard over Christmas wasn’t at Smith Square at all but round the corner at Westminster Abbey, where James O’Donnell (pictured conducting) runs perhaps the most accomplished church-based choir in Britain. I was there for the Christmas Eve carol service, which may not be an appropriate thing to review but it begs some kind of reportage because the Abbey choir was exemplary – singing with a discipline that was precise but not oppressive, and with everything in order: diction, intonation, clarity, coherence, elegance. The Abbey doesn’t do rough edges. It was truly beautiful.
The music on the Abbey’s Christmas Eve list also reinforced my sense of what was this year’s most-sung carol setting. Leaving aside the family favourites, there always seems to be one choral item that for some reason becomes the piece that every choir does over Christmas. In past years it’s been Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, Jonathan Dove’s Seek Him, or John Rutter’s What Sweeter Music. But having heard Rutter’s Dormi Jesu sung five times over two weeks, I’d say that was the popular choice for 2018. And it was a good choice: one of Rutter’s best among an output so prolific and embedded in the modern Christmas repertoire it’s hard to know what we’d do without him.