Many times one has gone home after a Bach or Handel Oratorio for Christmas and felt stirred, yet, if Choral Societies stay with these giants of cultural and religious expression, a question of ossification arises. Even so, sitting through Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, or Britten’s St Nicholas, it is possible to wonder “How long, O Lord, how long?” Martin How’s Advent Cantata did better than that, I feel, and that in itself is an achievement. Its eclectic style reminded one indeed of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, with its violin obligato beautifully played at short notice, by Anna Lee. Britten was less apparent, the harmonic style being less sparse, yet at times, particularly between the 2 verses of “Lo He Comes…”, it was excessively forced.
The hymns and descants were well-crafted, as we would expect from one steeped in RSCM culture. Vierne (and perhaps Howells) was present in the vox celeste of Colin Spinks’ excellent organ accompaniments to the Narrator’s passages. In fact, Colin brought great variety to the performance throughout and supported Jeff Stewart’s clear conducting. Alistair Walker’s solo tenor was an ideal voice for the Narrator.
The choir sang confidently, with the soprano line particularly strong. In the second half’s selection of carols, a member of the choir, Jenny Watkin, had composed a delightful “Lullaby” setting for the womens’ voices but it was the setting of Adolphe Adams’ “Cantique de Noel” by John Rutter that showed us that it is still possible to stir the soul at Christmas without being, on the one hand, too sentimental or, on the other, too musically clever. Rutter and How as a change from Bach and Handel, then.