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Review: Spirit of Christmas at the Philharmonic Hall ****

There’s certainly Christmas cheer aplenty at the Philharmonic Hall this season, from the aroma of mulled wine wafting around the foyer bar to the programme of festive favourites mixed with more unusual pieces.

The Phil’s Christmas concert programmes are carefully constructed with a nod to mainstream carols like O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come, All Ye Faithful, a solid vein of works by the ‘Mr Christmas’ duo of John Rutter and David Willcocks, and pieces either written or arranged by people with connections to the RLPO.

This year the latter include Alleluia, a New Work is Come on Hand by Peter Wishart, a freewheeling, key-changing piece sung unaccompanied by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir; Malcolm Sargent’s Zither Carol arranged by composer Ken Hesketh (sung by the Youth Choir), and an audience and choir medley of American Christmas favourites arranged by Liverpool Cathedral organist Daniel Bishop.

There’s also a homecoming for mezzo Jennifer Johnston who is now an international opera singer but once upon a time, before the invention of child protection legislation, was a teenage member of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir.

Johnston is clearly delighted – and, in the case of a deeply powerful performance of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which won the biggest ovation of the night on Sunday, clearly moved – to be back.

Jennifer Johnston at Spirit of Christmas. Top: Conductor Ian Tracey. Photos by Mark McNulty

Her voice, with its vibrant lower register, sits decidedly on the mezzo end of the vocal description, while she mostly stays with the classics for her solo pieces, including Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Reger’s rather lovely Mariae Wiegenlied.

One notable exception, Rodgers and Hammerstein apart, is a light-hearted but violent sequel to The Twelve Days of Christmas, which is good festive fun and involves props (although that’s a bit risky given her admittance of various mishaps suffered on international stages).

Elsewhere Johnston is joined by the Choir for an atmospheric performance of the Wexford Carol, and by Choir and Youth Choir in Harold Darke’s superlative version of In The Bleak Midwinter.

Other musical highlights of the evening include Piazzolla’s gorgeous The Road To Bethlehem, presented with serene confidence by the Youth Choir, Rutter’s effervescent Shepherd’s Pipe Carol (written when he was just 18), and Babes of Bethlehem which features a beautifully crisp vocal performance from the young singers.

John Suchet (pictured above) takes on presenting duties for an eighth (surely not?!) year, mixing interesting introductions to choral numbers with a shameless plug for his latest book and amusing readings – although his mention of the B-word was met with a chorus of groans from the audience.

There’s also a mention for A Christmas Carol, which was, of course, presented by Dickens in readings at the old Philharmonic Hall way back in August 1858. What the author would have made of The Sound of Christmas, penned by Suchet’s Classic FM stablemate Alan Titchmarsh, one can only guess.

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