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Review: Spirit of Christmas at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, flank the stage with a pair of conical Christmas trees…..and, in a colourful finale, why not dress as a rag tag of Mexican troubadours for a singalong Feliz Navidad?

The Philharmonic’s Spirit of Christmas is as much a part of the festive season as any panto, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Die Hard on TV (ho-ho-ho), and it’s pleasing to report the seasonal concert series is as magical as always.

There are a pair of welcome returns this year – the silver-tongued Classic FM presenter (and Beethoven hair-a-like) John Suchet, on charming presenting duties as usual, and beaming, guitar-wielding Mexican tenor Jesús León, back after a five-year absence.

Suchet, in Robin Redbreast waistcoat, punctuates the carols with amusing Christmas-themed readings such as the 12 Days of Turkey, although the developments in and around Bethlehem thankfully have nothing to do with pronouncements by Donald Trump.

And lyrical tenor León performs pair of classical solos in the first half, and more seasonal songs in the second, including Peter Cornelius’s gorgeous The Three Kings, here with the orchestra taking the chorus’ role beneath León’s melodic vocal and rather idiosyncratic pronunciation of the English text.

Jesús León at Spirit of Christmas. Photographs by Mark McNulty

There’s more than a touch of old Hollywood about some of the arrangements including Schubert’s Ave Maria, and a version of The Lord’s Prayer where the soloist is lifted up on a soaring, rich choral cloud.

The youth choir has a lovely clarity of delivery in pretty arrangements of The Star in the East and There Is No Rose, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir’s performance is crisp as a frosty December morning. Feel the whip crack of those Ks in the enunciation of Past Three O’Clock and enjoy the spikiness of Sir Christemas.

If one was being picky one might suggest the In Dulci Jubilo is a bit too slow (it feels like a 45rpm played at 33rpm), while the unaccompanied Now May We Singen is well sung but entirely unmemorable as a piece.

But those are niggles in an evening of good cheer which ends with a Silent Night in three languages, in a piece of festive theatre that happily stays the right side of schmaltzy; a roaring O Come All Ye Faithful, and a joyous let-your-hair-down Feliz Navidad with León in Mexican hat and with guitar up front, and the orchestra and choirs indulging in some seasonal silliness behind.

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