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

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen may not be on the programme for 2022, but the RLPO’s Spirit of Christmas concerts certainly spread comfort and joy.

Even the most Grinch-like Christmas curmudgeon must surely melt a little listening to beautiful seasonal music performed with love and attention by the massed choirs and orchestra?

While it includes a number of perennial favourites - the vocal cord-killing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Come, All Ye Faithful (remember, only two notes in ‘an-gels’ folks), the perky Sleigh Ride - this year the programme also has an international flavour, in part in homage to artist in residence Pacho Flores.

As always, the firm Phil favourite has brought armfuls of instruments with him, and showcases all their varying pitches and glistening tones throughout the programme, either in solo pieces like Maria Theresa von Paradis’ charming Sicilienne and Daquin's capering Le Coucou and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, or in partnership with orchestra and voices.

The genial, Venezuelan-born virtuoso is clearly having a whole lot of fun, particularly in the second half where he joins a phalanx of brass players in a humorous and cheery performance of Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday.

It’s just a shame that his trumpet part in Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring vanishes almost completely under the weight of the choir.

The programme marries the modern (Bob Chilcott’s serene The Shepherd’s Carol, the Stephen Hatfield-arranged Living in a Holy City) with the traditional, albeit often in new arrangements like Kenneth Hesketh’s Zither Carol, prettily sung by the Youth Choir, and Matthew Owens’ The Holly and the Ivy, delivered with filigree fineness by the main voices.

Above: Pacho Flores with Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason (right), conductor Ian Tracey, RLPO and voices. Top: Spirit of Christmas.

And there’s an emotional and beautifully-sung The Carol of the Bells, composed by the Ukrainian-born Mykola Leontovych.

Britain’s Mr Christmas, John Rutter, is also well represented with his versions of Three Kings of Orient – sublimely played by the orchestra, and In Dulci Jubilo, in a somewhat too slow tempo for my personal taste.

Some of the most joyous moments of a joyous, communal evening, come in the secular sections of the programme with Tim Jackson’s mash-up of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Santa Claus is Coming to Town an absolute showstopper before the interval, and later in Ian Stephens’ arrangement of that improbable Bing and Bowie chart hit Little Drummer Boy/Peace of Earth with choir and orchestra generating a glorious, cinematic sound under Ian Tracey’s baton.

Meanwhile the entire evening is drawn together by Kadiatu (Kadie) Kanneh-Mason. It can’t be easy to step into the presenting shoes of John Suchet, but she does it with warmth and charm and clarity, delivering cosy Christmas poems along with a few insights into her own - and her talented musical family’s - festive memories and traditions.

It all ends with silly hats, flashing lights and a spot of Feliz Navidad.


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