Tidings of Great Joy ()
We return to Lichfield Cathedral to perform our annual Christmas Concert — the overarching theme this year is a celebration of St Nicholas, whose feast day is 6 December. His reputation as a bringer of gifts is said to be the inspiration for Santa Claus.
We will be performing three pieces:
- Missa Sancti Nicolai — a mass for St Nicholas. This piece is quintessential Haydn — full of energy, tunefulness and infectious joy.
- In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi — a hugely atmospheric setting of St Luke’s account of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds — full of Christmas spirit and meaning.
- and finally, the Cantata ‘St Nicolas’ by Benjamin Britten — a celebration of the life and works of Saint Nicolas of Myra. This is Britten at his most playful with scenes from the Saint’s life portrayed in a typically dramatic sequence of events.
We are delighted to be joined and supported by our four excellent soloists: Augusta Hebbert (soprano); Eilidh Owen (contralto); Nicholas Hawker (tenor); and Simon Brown (last-minute baritone soloist replacement!).
Doors open at 18:45. There will be a bar in the Cathedral before the concert, and also available in the interval.
- Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 (1948) — Britten
- In Terra Pax (1956) — Finzi
- Missa Sancti Nicolai, Hob. XXII/6 (1772) — Haydn
Lichfield Cathedral, The Close, Lichfield, WS13 7LD [map]
Review of LCC concert December 3rd 2022
Santa Claus arrived early at the Cathedral this year, and not once but twice! Lichfield Cathedral Chorus, under their conductor Ben Lamb, treated us to both the Haydn Missa Sancti Nicolai, and Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas, as well as the delightful In Terra Pax by Gerald Finzi, in their aptly-named concert “Tidings of Great Joy” last Saturday.
There was certainly great joy in the exuberant mass, which is one of Haydn’s most delightful (and shortest) of mass settings, and it was confidently approached by both choir and soloists, well supported by the Lichfield Camerata. The stylish opening Kyrie, repeated at the end in the Dona Nobis Pacem, flowed along easily, and the soloists were nicely blended. Indeed we heard them first…the effortless soprano voice of Augusta Hebbert soaring over the well-balanced trio of Eilidh Owen (alto), Nicholas Hawker (tenor) and the very last minute stand-in Simon Brown (baritone), a former chorister who made a splendid contribution to the evening, particularly in the Finzi.
The choir clearly enjoyed the Haydn …how could anyone not!… and apart from a slightly sluggish fugal moment amongst the men in the Gloria everything rollicked along beautifully, with just an occasional sense of uncertainty at openings such as the Credo. The orchestra supported well, though once again because of the nature of the Cathedral’s acoustic we had a balance problem with the horns swamping the strings, and indeed the voices. But this was overall a delightful, exuberant performance which ended all too soon!
The inevitability of having only one rehearsal with the orchestra led to some challenges in the other two works. Finzi’s beautiful In Terra Pax, based on the familiar words of the angels to the shepherds, was a wonderful display of his amazing skill at seamlessly shifting harmonies and tonalities, and this was well handled by the choir. The sensitive orchestration allowed soloists, in this case soprano and baritone, to shine through. The cold and frosty start, beautifully portrayed by the orchestra, was picked up by the characterful singing of Simon Brown, in the words of Robert Bridges’ poem Christmas Eve. The diction of both soloists was excellent, as was the choir’s, who also warmed into the work with a particularly fine account of the round-style Glory to God from the angelic host. This gem of a work is a lovely example of well-written music’s ability to add to and reflect on the meaning of some all-too-familiar texts.
The biggest challenge of the night was undoubtedly Benjamin Britten’s wonderful cantata St Nicolas, which involves not only a choir and colourful orchestra, but also a gallery chorus, a young St Nicolas, three pickled boys in a barrel, and the audience! This takes us through the life of St Nicolas, and has some great dramatic moments such as the storm and shipwreck. The instrumentation is typical of Britten, including much use of colourful percussion, and it would have been lovely had the choir had more time to adjust to these unexpected sounds. It was at times hard to pick up the text through the texture, and although it was clear that the choir were working really hard at, for instance, trying to give the impression of the sailors drowning in the storm, we didn’t quite grasp their terror. Perhaps the pace was a little too leisurely. But there is some complex writing in this work, and diction needs to be overdone to cut through the orchestral texture, especially as we didn’t have the benefit of the text to follow.
This somewhat applied also to the tenor soloist, who took on the role of Nicolas. In unaccompanied or lightly accompanied sections all was well, and he gave a secure performance with perfect intonation, but it was very hard to pick up the story for much of the time. However, we were certainly well aware of the alleluias of the three grateful pickled boys, and of the glorifying God of the young Nicolas, all of whom were Cathedral choristers and sang with aplomb. The gallery chorus, who really were high up in the West End gallery, also sang their tricky parts with confidence and excellent tuning, the quality of the young voices being exactly what Britten wanted. Indeed, this work was well rehearsed and well known by all participants. Even we the audience managed to sing our two hymns lustily, once we had found the words in the programme, and it was lovely to feel ourselves a part of this great music…. Britten so loved to involve whole communities in his works, and this is one of the most accessible of them.
Megan Barr, December 2022