Monday, 19 December 2016

A British Christmas - in Paris!

An all British Christmas concert de Noël - but from Paris, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Mikko Franck.  Elgar, Britten and RVW, but also Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius and Victor Hely-Hutchinson.. If the BBC SO did a programme as ambitious as this, it would be a major event. But Radio France beat them to it. Aha! Britishness through a non-British prism! OPRF don't sound "English" but the music benefits from being performed "as" music, without baggage.

Adeste Fideles, or O Come, all ye Faithful, started the party, the first of four movements in A Carol Symphony (1929) by Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)  According to wiki, he died because he wouldn't turn on the heating in his office in the cold winter of 1947. Hopefully, his fellow workers didn't suffer. In contrast, Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) an altogether more original work, not mere transcription, where the carols become part of a larger creation, with suggestions of medieval music and plain chant (baritone Marc Pancek). .  In Frederick Delius Sleigh Ride (no 2 of Three Small Tone Poems) Franck downplayed the obvious "sleigh bells" in the introduction, emphasizing the finesse in the abstract themes that followed.  This approach also enhanced Arnold Bax's Christmas Eve (1912 rev. 1921) , a tone poem with sweeping  lines that might suggest vast nocturnal landscapes, the opacity in the tutti lushness darkness lit by flashes of brass and light.

The youth choir of Radio France returned for several songs from Benjamin Britten A Ceremony of Carols op 26, 1942. Lovely, clear, piping voices with the purity Britten sought. If they had slight French accents, not a problem at all ! That brought out the sense of otherworldliness that makes such a difference in Britten interpretation. The adult choirs assembled Douce Nuit (Silent Night), followed by a new transcription of the carol for solo organ, magical and bizarre at the same time.  Then the Elgar part song, The Snow, op 26/1 1894, for choir, two violins and small orchestra.   More Elgar, "Nimrod" from the Enigma Variations , here played with magisterial elegance.  An excellent choice, reminding me at least of Bax Christmas Eve and Delius and even Holst and Finzi.  Yet again, thoughtful programming, setting the scene for Britten's St Nicholas.(1948). The girl singing the treble part was lovely, as was the tenor (Christophe Poncet) and the full choir striking. Yet even in these grand moments, Britten doesn't really write in the British choral tradition but does his own quirky variation.

But it's Christmas, and party time ! So Vive le vent (Jingle Bells in French). Then the Hallelujah Chorus, written by a German, sung in English by a French choir, conducted by a Finn, who sang along, as did the Paris audience.  Proper Christmas spirit, and dare I say, proper European spirit, too.   Enjoy the concert HERE on - better than most things planned in UK this season

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