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

While pantos and Christmas shows are in full swing across the city, the Liverpool Phil flies the flag for a more reflective – while still celebratory – festive season.

Rather like the rock ‘n’ roll panto at the Everyman further along Hope Street, the Phil’s Spirit of Christmas concerts have become a key part of the run up to the big day itself.

Its carefully crafted programme of much-loved audience favourites, reinterpretations of traditional carols and new pieces (plus a few popular festive tunes and non-Christmassy numbers) interspersed with poems and seasonal stories which underline the Christmas message, certainly seems to hit the spot with its audience.

And there are plenty of delightful moments to savour in this year’s concert, which matches works by composers like ‘Mr Christmas’ John Rutter (plus David Willcocks and King’s Singer-turned-composer Bob Chilcott) with numbers arranged by conductor Ian Tracey and the RLPO’s principal horn Tim Jackson.

Tracey may have put away his official Royal Liverpool Philharmonic choirmaster baton, but happily he remains a genial, encouraging figure on the podium for this festive series.

For a decade, his partner in (Christmas) crime at the front of a stage packed with singers and musicians was the equally genial John Suchet.

Last year Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason took up the writer and broadcaster’s mantle, and she returns for a second season to act as presenter and delivers the introductions and stories in an appealingly warm tone – audibly easing into the role as the evening progresses.

The evening opened with the massed ranks of singers (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir) and orchestra performing Chilcott’s version of Rejoice and Be Merry in glistening fashion.

The Youth Choir (under the baton of Simon Emery) continues to impress – its members sing without scores but with a marvellous clarity of delivery and some beautiful harmonising.

They performed a splendidly crisp Gaudete, and charmed in Jonathan Dove’s Christmas is Here (buoyed by sleighbells and brass) and the Canadian Huron Carol, although the boys’ verse was subsumed somewhat beneath accompanying ‘ahhhs’ from the much larger contingent of female voices.

Above: Spirit of Christmas. Top: The Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Brass Band and concertgoers outside Philharmonic Hall.

The main Choir meanwhile also impressed in an unaccompanied Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day, and in Rutter’s gorgeous What Sweeter Music (indeed) and offered glowing choral accompaniment for special guest soloist, Liverpool mezzo soprano Kathryn Rudge.

Dressed in sweeping red, and clearly delighted to be back on the Hope Street stage, she had a busy evening performing a wide range of pieces from Bach (Esurientes Implevit Bonis) to a Copland arrangement of a traditional Appalachian song to Over the Rainbow (also being sung nightly down the road at the Empire this Christmas – what are the chances?!), along with numbers with the choruses, of which the double bill of The Christmas Song and It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (arranged by Jackson) were particularly enchanting.

Away from the stage, there was also some impressively lusty singing from the audience itself in the programme’s five communal carols – particularly O Come, All Ye Faithful which Spirit of Christmas tradition dictates ends the officially programmed part of the evening.

Joyful and triumphant? I’d say so.

As a bonus, concert goers – and passers-by – were treated to more carols outside, played ahead of the main event by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Brass Band, encouraged and guided by trombonist Simon Cowen.

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