December 2017: A Ceremony of Carols

Saturday 9 December 2017

Buckfast Abbey

Planning a Christmas Concert programme with any degree of originality is a tough call for a choir director, but Exeter Festival Chorus, under the direction of Nigel Perrin, achieved this with a selection of music and quality of performance that were absolutely magical.

The choir made use of the Abbey’s fine acoustic by moving around the church, singing the different works in different areas to match the acoustic to the composition style.

Although comprising different works of contrasting styles, the programme was conceived as a single entity, with each new piece following seamlessly. When a physical move was involved, this took place at the end of a piece so the choir were in their new location for the start of the next item. This really worked, giving a feeling of unity to the performance.

Most of the music was sung ‘a cappella’ and the diction and tuning were superb – from my seat in the centre of the Nave I could hear every word, even when the choir was positioned beyond the choir stalls.

A steady drum beat from the West End of the church heralded the choir singing John Tavener’s Christmas Procession as they processed through the Nave and Quire, taking up a position in the Transept where the music progressed seamlessly into Tavener’s Ikon of the Nativity. The ethereal sound of this work was enhanced by the choir’s distance from the audience.

The choir moved to the chancel steps to sing the ancient carol In dulci jubilo in a setting by Michael Praetorius, and Bob Chilcott’s Advent Antiphons. Bob Chilcott is one of today’s most popular and versatile choral composers, and this set of the seven Advent antiphons made full use of the spacious acoustic of the Abbey Church. The antiphons, all based on the plainsong melody Veni Immanuel, but in contrasting styles, gave this versatile choir a chance to show off their virtuosity.

Moving again to the area beyond the choir stalls, the choir and harpist, Ruth Faber, took up a position under the tower, and gave a memorable performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The singing was dynamic and precise, with every word clearly audible. Particularly noteworthy were the soloists from the choir who sang That Yongë Childe and Balulalow. The interlude for solo harp was brilliantly executed, and much enhanced by the distant positioning of the instrument. Ceremony of Carols was written for boys’ voices, but arranged for SATB a year later by Julius Harrison. The inclusion of men’s voices, as in the EFC’s performance, gives added depth and vitality to the work.

Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël - these four motets in contrasting styles are known to be amongst the most difficult in the choral repertoire. As we have come to expect from this choir, directed by Nigel Perrin, the performance of these motets was precise, tuneful and most enjoyable.

The concert concluded with four well known carols sung in unfamiliar arrangements, the highlight being Bob Chilcott’s new setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem In the bleak mid-winter - a worthy addition to the familiar versions by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke.

Another outstanding and memorable performance by one of the region’s foremost choirs.

Colin Ashby