Review by Alison Child
“O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer.
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.”
Here was a concert to bring a smile to the face of the most cynical of critics. And my review is more ‘thank you for having me’ note than critique; the least I can do to acknowledge the attention to detail that went into devising and presenting a programme that felt hand-crafted with love. John Rutter, a genuine national treasure, brings contagious vitality and passion to conducting and compering this event, which, although an annual institution, felt fresh off the page, at no time more so than during the UK première of the veteran composer’s latest carol, ‘I Sing of a Maiden’. Pairing this with his famous, joyous, ‘Shepherd’s Pipe Carol’ was a masterstroke.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bach Choir performed with matchless professionalism, but it was the choristers of Croydon Minster who, with equal discipline and commitment, touched the heartstrings, first in ‘Away in a Manager’ with the simplicity of their verse, ‘Bless all the dear children in thy tender care’ and brought the house down with their immaculately-timed tribute to the NHS in ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’
There’s a party feel to this event – and what better way to kick off the festivities than with a quiz? Not one, but two! The clinch question in ‘spot the tune’ was a Stephen Sondheim number. Thank you, JR, for putting that in, a loving tribute to the much-mourned musical theatre deity. You can never have enough Sondheim. In the world of genius composers with an immense gift for writing their own lyrics you can never have enough Rutter either! The glorious ‘Candlelight Carol’, ‘Angels’ Carol’ and ‘Star Carol’ would have been great additions to the programme for my money. But then I wouldn’t have wanted to replace anything in this creatively balanced playlist.
There were just enough sing-along carols for the audience. Being conducted by Rutter was a thrill and he said we really weren’t too bad considering we’d missed a year!
I’ve left it ‘til last to mention all that soprano soloist Nadine Benjamin brought to the occasion. This rising star of the classical music firmament imbues everything she does with sincerity, commitment and transcendent poise. She is equally convincing in Stanford’s ‘Magnificat’ and Rutter’s arrangement of ‘O Holy Night’, as when light-heartedly (but very fairly) adjudicating the quiz alongside the composer.
Warm-heartedness is the hallmark of an occasion which I suspect goes from strength to strength each year, undeterred by viruses and variants. So thank you RPO, Bach Choir, Croydon Minster, Nadine Benjamin and Royal Albert Hall for a wonderful afternoon. I trust your evening performance went splendidly, too, and audience members were as happy as the ones I saw heading out into the rainy night with the festive spirit once again rekindled beneath their facemasks.