Christmas crackers usually come stuffed with a flimsy paper crown, a tacky toy, a plastic puzzle and a bad joke. But, open a VOCES8 Christmas Cracker and you’ll find the eight-strong vocal ensemble cruising through carols traditional, jazzy and newly commissioned; a full orchestra and chorus comprising some of the finest musicians and singers working in the UK today; six newly commissioned orchestral arrangements of well-loved festive fare from the inspired pen of Taylor Scott Davis; and seasonal words – poetic, spiritual and droll – read with poise and affection by Richard Leaf and Tamsin Greig. And, all wrapped up with outstanding care and polish, as one would expect from an ensemble whose presentation and production values are as superlative as their musical ones.
The billing promised ‘Broadway glitz and Hollywood schmaltz’ but that belies both the serious artistic principles underpinning this performance and the classiness of the result. Christmas music comes in many forms: traditional and tinselly, contemplative and celebratory, grave and glorifying. We had all of them here. In the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Barnaby Smith led the VOCES8 Foundation Choir and Orchestra through some rousing and razzle-dazzle festive numbers. In the VOCES8 Centre in the City of London, the octet blended traditional polyphony with characteristic poise then crooned through dulcet close harmonies above bass Jonathan Pacey’s blithe beat. We segued seamlessly between the two venues with Leaf’s and Greig’s readings smoothly integrated into the sequence.
This was a programme of the ‘old’ made ‘new’. Taylor Scott Davis’ new arrangements of six traditional carols had a dazzling Romantic sweep which the Orchestra of 50 musicians – led by Jack Liebeck and the Carducci Quartet – and 24-strong Choir relished. Imaginative instrumentations, new chord progressions and textures, re-harmonisations and added melodic strands brought freshness to the familiar themes. The energy and colour of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ ‘Christmas Cracker’ medley offered a slick aperitif to Scott Davis’ ‘Joy to the World’ which began with a brassy exuberance worthy of Bernstein, slipped into new harmonic territory for the soprano-dominated second verse – all sweeping harps, roving bass lines and asymmetrical sways – before the men of the Choir sang a slower verse with composure and sincerity. Conducting with precision and clarity, Barnaby Smith helped the musicians to dig deep into the spirit of the music.
‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ was given the ‘Hollywood treatment’ by Scott Davis. Strong pedals and the slow elongated melody blossomed into startling harmonies for “Rejoice, rejoice” refrain that seemed to embody so much more than ‘just’ jubilation. There was contrast, too, in the clarity of the counterpoint and the sentiments of the colours, and a tectonic harmonic shift to the major mode at the close was stirring. The jazz rhythms of ‘I Saw Three Ships’ seemed to be trying to trip themselves up, and the orchestral kaleidoscope, harmonic scrunches and perky buoyant built to a grand closing flourish. In ‘Silent Night’, solos from Jack Liebeck and oboist Ilid Jones lightened the surprisingly ‘weighty’ sound-world.
Other arrangers were able to show off their talents too. Jim Clements’ orchestration of ‘Gabriel’s Message’ had a touching pensiveness, the voices blooming into brightness, fading back to shadow, then swelling with stereophonic sumptuousness. The delayed resolution of the dissonance at the close was shaped perfectly by Smith. VOCES8 baritone Christopher Moore captured the joyful optimism of the ‘Sussex Carol’ in his orchestration of Philip Ledger’s version, particularly in the solos in the second verse and brass interjections at the close. Owain Park’s orchestration of Adrian Peacock’s ‘Venite, Gaudete!’ perfected paced the piling repetitions and Smith conjured real vigour in this carol, which ended with a dramatic twist from darkness to light.
Back in the VOCES8 Centre, the 16th-century polyphony of Jean Mouton’s ‘Nesciens Mater’ unfolded with soft fluidity and beautifully nuanced vocal gestures, while David Willcock’s arrangement of ‘Quelle est cette Odeur agréable’ was fresh and comforting, the rich homophony of the final stanza enveloping one with the warmth of a Bach chorale. A new VOCES8 commission from Bob Chilcott, ‘The Sleeping Child’, offered some piquant harmonies to complement the gentleness of the high-lying passages. The octet later slipped into their soft shoes and let their hair down in a wonderful new arrangement by tenor Blake Morgan, ‘Silver Bells’, in which the squishy harmonies and slithering swoons were given a lift by Pacey’s bopping beat. The saccharinity was sharpened by Morgan’s unexpected appeal, “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” and Pacey’s darkly glowing observation, “Baby, it’s cold outside”, and the sopranos’ closing clarion shone resonantly. Two VOCES8 ‘staples’ – Jim Clements’ arrangements of ‘Let it Snow’ and ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ completed the stylish set.
Back in St Jude’s, Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ surged with smooth playfulness; it must have felt to Smith as if he was easing his foot down in a musical Lamborghini. Hewitt Jones’ ‘Christmas Pops Medley’ might have been a bit sugary but the terrific chord sequence which closed ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ packed a punch.
After eloquent readings by Richard Leaf of Rossetti and Tolkien, Tamsin Greig had fun with J.J. Norwich’s ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ in which Emily’s delight at receiving a partridge and turtle doves from her dear Edward, soon turned to dismay, then desperation, when the calling birds messed up the house, the geese and swans ruined the croquet lawn, the ladies’ shameless cavorting shocked the neighbours, and the lords took liberties with the milkmaids (who came with cows attached). The gold rings were not only beautiful but were perfect for ringing the necks of the unwanted aviary.
Scott Davis’ ‘Away in a Manger’ was unexpectedly expansive and sumptuous, and featured lovely solos from Liebeck, cellist Emma Denton and horn player Mark Bennett. The fanfares and interludes of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ made for a gloriously invigorating finale, the mood-shifts and transitions, from grandeur to sombreness and back again, expertly negotiated by Smith.
Smith was positioned on a podium-cum-Xmas pressie and this terrific performance certainly made one want to unwrap the rest of VOCES8’s Live from London Christmas 2021 season.
VOCES8, The VOCES8 Foundation Choir, The VOCES8 Orchestra (Jack Liebeck, guest leader), Tamsin Greig and Richard Leaf (narrators), Barnaby Smith (conductor)
Thomas Hewitt Jones – ‘Christmas Cracker’, Taylor Scott Davis (arr.) – ‘Joy to the World’, Reading: ‘Christmas Eve’ by Christina Rosetti; Jim Clements (arr.) – ‘Gabriel’s Message’, Taylor Scott Davis (arr.) – ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’, Jean Mouton – Nesciens Mater, David Willcox (arr.) – ‘Quelle est cette Odeur agréable’, Bob Chilcott – ‘The Sleeping Child’, Taylor Scott Davis (arr.) ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and ‘Silent Night’, Reading: ‘Noel’ by J.R.R Tolkein, Adrian Peacock – ;Venite, Gaudete!’ (orch. Owain Park), Philip Ledger – ‘Sussex Carol’ (orch. Christopher Moore), Blake Morgan (arr.) – ‘Silver Bells’, Jim Clements (arr.) – ‘Let it Snow’ and ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, Reading: J.J. Norwich – ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, Leroy Anderson – ‘Sleigh Ride’, Thomas Hewitt (arr.) – ‘Christmas Pops Medley, Reading: ‘O Simplicitas’ by Madeleine L’Engle, Taylor Scott Davis (arr.) – ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’
St Jude-on-the-Hill (Hampstead Garden Suburb) and VOCES8 Centre (City of London), live stream; Saturday 4th December 2021.