All the Christmas trimmings: Peterborough Cathedral Choir, Festival Chorus & Youth Choir with conductor, Steven Grahl at Peterborough Cathedral, December 15

Christmas at Peterborough Cathedral
Christmas at Peterborough Cathedral

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Christmas food or Christmas music. We all have our special favourites and we’re all delighted when they appear on the menu or on the concert programme.

For me this concert by the Peterborough Cathedral Choirs was a bit like a splendid Christmas dinner. Complete with all the trimmings and even including a recipe of my own.

The most satisfying and substantial item on the menu, the main course in fact, was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols. I’ve mentioned before in these reviews how this great composer and others like Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger roamed the country at the beginning of the 20th century searching for ancient folk songs. Their aim was not just to save these fine songs from extinction. It was also to pass them on to future generations and the Christmas Carol Fantasia does exactly that.

In an unhurried and sumptuous performance conducted by Director of Music Steven Grahl, the three or four timeless carols featured in the fantasy proved just as relevant, inspiring, and moving as when Vaughan Williams wrote the piece in 1912. As well as the soaring choirs, baritone Robbie Haylett contributed a noble solo at the start of the piece. David Humphreys, Assistant Director of Music, was the tireless organist, and Charlotte McAuliffe enhanced the performance with open-toned, mellifluous playing of the solo cello part.

Still talking of favourites, the carol that appeals to me most in the Fantasia is Come All Ye Worthy Gentlemen. In a brilliant piece of programme planning Steven Grahl also included the tune’s better-known first cousin God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Here the large audience joined in with fervour as they had with O Little Town of Bethlehem and Good King Wenceslas. Other Christmas goodies included three popular choruses from Handel’s Messiah.

The diamond-bright, piercing voices of the young choristers making a stunning impression.

As well as this traditional music the concert included two contemporary items, Steven Grahl’s O Nata Lux and my own Two Minster Carols.

Steven’s piece proved to be an attractive setting of a text celebrating the light of lights. Appropriately the music seemed to shine brightly, its opening lines soon turning into clusters, later followed by magical chords.

My own piece is all about the contrast between the gentle opening lullaby and the driving dance which follows. It received an insightful and committed performance which left me happy and replete. The kind of feeling you have after a perfect Christmas dinner.

REVIEW: Joe Conway