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

Back in the mists of time, John Suchet was persuaded to present the Phil’s popular Spirit of Christmas concerts for ‘just one year’.

Eleven years and 10 Christmases later (Covid restrictions causing a hiatus last December), Classic FM’s resident Beethovian is bowing out with one final mellifluous turn at the Hope Street mic.

He comes bearing beaming bonhomie and a parting gift in the form of soloist Thomas Weinhappel, whom he happened upon pre-pandemic while presenting a concert in Vienna and recommended for festive duty at the Philharmonic Hall.

The Vienna Boys’ Choir alumnus and rising star in the (particularly Wagnerian) opera world has a rich, almost bass-baritone voice and a physically and vocally expressive delivery which he brings to a wide range of pieces peppering Ian Tracey’s well-balanced programme.

It’s perhaps just a little too rich and operatic for Mary’s Boy Child, arranged in classical calypso-lite fashion by ‘Mr Christmas’ John Rutter whose original carols and arrangements of other festive favourites are liberally sprinkled throughout the evening.

But elsewhere the smiling Weinhappel delivers an atmospheric O Holy Night - a lovely duet between voice and Elizabeth McNulty’s harp, and which is given an extra lift by the Austrian switching to his native tongue in the second verse.

Spirit of Christmas. Top: John Suchet - photo by Mark McNulty

A gentle rendition of Edelweiss, complete with a touch of audience involvement, might raise fellow Austrians’ eyebrows (no, it’s really NOT their national anthem!) but would certainly escape a trademark wry glance from the late Christopher Plummer.

And Peter Cornelius’ exquisite The Three Kings proves one of several enjoyable collaborations between soloist, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Youth Choir which also include It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Tim Jackson's arrangement a glistening, Golden Age of Hollywood-style confection.

The adult numbers are pared-back to keep some social distancing on the stage this season, but they still produce a powerful sound when required, and there’s excellent, crisp enunciation and dynamics from both the main choir and the young voices.

Among the Rutter contributions (a delayed celebratory nod to the composer turning 75) are a complex arrangement of Joy to the World, which opens the second half in triumphant fashion and brings out the Baroque-ness of Handel’s music, and the Star Carol, with sparkling vocals by the choirs and some silky violins.

The young voices also impress in Britten’s tricky This Little Babe from his A Ceremony of Carols, while there’s a beautiful clarity to the unaccompanied adult voices in Elizabeth Poston’s simple setting of the 18th Century poem Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

Ian Tracey. Photo by Mark McNulty.

With Covid still raging around us, Tracey has woven a message of hope and peace through much of the programme – articulated in a choral version of Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas (“We wish you a hopeful Christmas, we wish you a brave New Year”), while the genial Suchet offers warm words and gently comical readings, and principal percussion Graham Johns takes centre stage for a fast, furious and funny orchestral romp through Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter – with an overhead camera capturing his frenzied pounding of the antique keyboard.

Suchet bows out with a surprise at the end, but it turns out you can’t really keep him away. He’ll be back in Hope Street to present a concert with Domingo Hindoyan in June.

“Liverpool will always have a place in my heart,” he tells the Phil faithful. And even if it weren't the season of goodwill, it wouldn't be difficult to believe him.


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