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

Joy to the world!

And while there’s been precious little festive cheer around this year, there was plenty of seasonal bonhomie at the Philharmonic Hall’s opening Spirit of Christmas concert.

“This is the start of Christmas,” I heard one audience member tell another, while others turned up in Santa hats clutching children’s selection boxes (and that was just the adults).

And with the aroma of mulled wine wafting through the bar, and a pair of slim Christmas trees flanking the stage, the scene was certainly set for a seasonal celebration.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic takes an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude to its annual Christmas concerts with a programme that mixes traditional (and not so traditional) carols with orchestral interludes and amusing readings.

But the team have added what appears to be an extra dimension of drama this season, starting with the opening which features John Suchet’s disembodied voice intoning the words of Luke Chapter 2 over a shimmering instrumental Coventry Carol.

And if you’re in the stalls, watch out for something unexpected during a finale that’s not mentioned in the official programme.

In between, there are audience participation carols, not least the voice-wrecking Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, along with Once in Royal David’s City and O Come, All ye Faithful – the latter in particular rousing the auditorium to full voice.

With this year’s special guest being Czech violin superstar Pavel Šporcl, the programme is also infused with a Mitteleuropean musical tone; Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in G minor, A Czech Carol – the internationally-known Rocking carol, and Šporcl’s own A Christmas Prayer.

The composition, full of rich minor tones (always the best carols to my mind), warm and yearning violin and an ethereal vocal line for young voices, is on the violinist’s Christmas on the Blue Violin album recorded here in Liverpool a couple of sweltering summers ago.

The Phil’s Youth Choir are in impressive voice and have plenty of opportunities to show what they can do, including a performance Piazzolla’s Ave Maria (again with an achingly sweet violin line from Šporcl) whose ‘vedi’ verse was absolutely gorgeous.

Meanwhile the ‘big’ choir delivers robustly bright and crisp performances of Joubert’s Torches, complete with punchy brass and percussion, Edmund Walters’ Buenos Reyes – percussion evoking the compelling rhythms of Iberia, and a silky and smooth Still, Still, Still with Šporcl’s violin arcing over the voices.

The violinist, clad in old gold and with his distinctive blue violin, makes an unexpected entrance for Stille Nacht, providing a lovely counterpoint to the massed choirs.

And then it’s all wrapped up with the aforementioned O Come, All ye Faithful.

Joyful and triumphant? I’d say so, yes.

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