One of the late Stephen Cleobury’s remarkable achievements was to rear a vigorous branch of contemporary composition devoted to Christmas carols. The BBC Singers’ Christmas concert at the Temple Church was a good moment to contemplate this, with a programme of 17 recent seasonal items, including a world premiere by Naji Hakim (present to hear his interesting new version of Veni, Veni Emmanuel, featuring of course his typically gorgeous harmonies and organ sounds, played by Ashley Grote.)
However, for me this 90-minute recital brought to the fore a single downside of this generally great development. Which is that, however interested I am in the gorgeous sounds and ingenious arrangements, I find myself becoming aurally exhausted with so many stop-start new styles in extremely numerous short spans to digest. I imagine it could also become vocally exhausting, although there wasn’t a trace of this from the excellent BBC Singers and conductor Sofi Jeannin.
The answer, if anyone else other than me finds it a problem, is to include more speech in such programmes. This was an interesting ingredient at Temple Church, with four poems about the Christmas experience read by Singers. Unannounced in the printed programme, they took me rather by surprise, seeming partially inaudible as a result. It reminded me what a genius invention the Nine Lessons and Carols service is. Beautifully balanced between familiar spoken narratives and (these days) interesting music, this is an always completely absorbing hour-and-a-half.