Christmas with the Chorus, December 2007


A capacity audience at this year’s annual Christmas concert in Dunnottar Church on Sunday afternoon raised their voices to the rafters to join with the Stonehaven Chorus in singing some of the best loved hymns and carols that have come to define the traditional Christmas. What gave Sunday’s concert its unique cachet however was the selection of choral gems unearthed by conductor Dr John Hearne with which the Chorus proceeded to surprise and delight the audience. Some, like the two items taken from the Cantata Hodie by Vaughan Williams were revivals from an unjustly neglected work, others like the Polish carols were arrangements by Dr Hearne of pieces popular in their country of origin, but not well known here. Martin Dalby’s Of thy human heart was a first performance and Percy Fletcher’s Ring out, wild bells was a revival of a magical piece that had ceased to be performed because it had come to be sniffed at as “old fashioned”.

Most of the pieces were performed unaccompanied and several used antiphonal effects, that is to say two competing choirs placed at either side of the church. Bruckner’s motet, Virga Jesse floruitbrought the richness of the full centrally focused choir into play while Jacob Handl’s Resonet in Laudibusused the two separate choirs in a relatively simple way. O beatum et sacrosanctum diemby Peter Philips, an English renaissance composer who worked in Flanders was far more complex, producing some wonderful chiming choral sounds. Pearsall’s arrangement of the traditional German carol In dulci jubilo also employed the two choir strategy to marvellous effect. There is no rose by John Coath used soft quintessentially English harmonies but in his Christ Child, David Harries employs much more adventurous harmonic language to underline the dark words of a text that looks forward to the ominous future fate of the sleeping Christ Child. John Hearne inserted No sad thoughtfrom Hodie by Vaughan Williams at this point to provide a telling contrast in emotions.

Martin Dalby’s Of thy human hearthad more than a little of the Eastern European flavour of music by the likes of Zoltan Kodaly about it and was therefore a fitting companion for the second of two jaunty Polish carols, Three wise men, this one with a gloriously sturdy bass line.

The final two carols profited from the splendid organ playing of guest organist Donald Hawksworth. The first was John Hearne’s own setting of the words of the hymn Brightest and Best. Wonderfully energetic outer verses for both organ and chorus enclosed more pensive central verses with splendidly imaginative and colourful harmonic writing. The second was Percy Fletcher’s New Year Carol. It sets to music the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ring out, wild bells”. Here the excellent singing of the Stonehaven Chorus reached its apex, the full throated vocal sounds chiming in with the organ and a real carillon of bells: a magnificent conclusion to a fine musical celebration.