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Review: Christmas Carols at Liverpool Philharmonic ****1/2

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s annual Spirit of Christmas concerts are a dependable highlight of a normal festive season.

But this is anything but a normal Christmas, and the usual serried ranks of choirs and full orchestra would be a seasonal superspreader too far.

It would have been easy to simply shut up shop in the run up to December 25, but instead the Phil has taken the essence of the event and presented it in much more modest wrapping.

And rather than a stage solid with singers and musicians, this short but sweet concert features just 37 members of the Philharmonic Choir, conducted by Ian Tracey and singing favourite carols in a cappella fashion.

John Suchet is also missing from presenting duties for the first time in a decade, but Classic FM’s smooth-toned Beethoven-aholic needs to watch out because Jane the 1st alto – taking over compering duties here – has his smoothly mellifluous delivery down to a tee.

The concert comes in just shy of an hour but packs in a baker’s dozen of charming carols, sung with bell-like clarity, crisp enunciation and some beautiful part work by the socially distanced chamber choir.

It means if one piece doesn’t float your boat for some reason, there’s another along in a minute which hopefully will.

Christmas Carols. Photo by Mark McNulty

The programme on this first night opened with a glistening Ding Dong Merrily on High and a serene In The Bleak Midwinter which showed off some impressive phrasing.

Past Three O’Clock came complete with an over-emphasised clicking ‘kkkkkk’ and was followed by a truncated Hark the Herald Angels Sing, shorn of both its vocal cord-flaying descant and its usual audience participation. No lusty singing allowed in the auditorium this season.

The berumb-bum-bum-bum chant of Little Drummer Boy was perhaps lacking the soaring counterpoint of a Bowie-like ‘peace on Earth’ to give it an added dimension, but the vocal chiming of Carol of the Bells was absolutely delightful. And over far too quickly.

While the programme choices tend towards the gentle – a limpid Stille Nacht and O Magnum Mysterium with its smooth and silky harmonies spring to mind, there are also jolly trifles like Fum Fum Fum and a bright and shiny Deck the Halls.

And the concert ends, not with the organ oomph underneath a belting O Come All Ye Faithful as Spirit of Christmas is wont to do, but with a heartfelt We Wish You a Merry Christmas.


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