Review: Cantores Olicanae Christmas Concert, St John’s Church, Ben Rhydding, Saturday 9 December 2023

DESPITE the rain and wind outside, Cantores Olicanae’s annual Christmas Concert drew a large audience last Saturday. The recently-installed new seating in St John’s, Ben Rhydding, made for a comfortable audience and, unless your reviewer is mistaken, for a warmer acoustic as well. The usual well-chosen mixture of carols, hymns and contemporary readings topped up with mince pies made for an excellent beginning to the festivities.

The choir were on excellent form, under their new musical director, James Savage-Handford, with each section giving of its best and good balance overall. There were some impressive changes of dynamic and some lovely quiet passages while the descants in the final verses of the audience carols rang out loud and clear.

As well as the crisp rhythms of Matthew Owen’s setting of the Holly and the Ivy, the first half contained Peter Warlock’s, Bethlehem Down, and Howell’s A Spotless Rose with its beautiful harmonies. John Rutter contributed his inimitable melodic genius in his Candlelight Carol and the choir gave a convincing performance of Will Todd’s My Lord has Come – a follow-up to their performance earlier this year of his Mass in Blue.

The central piece in the second half was Cecilia McDowell’s cantata – Christus natus est – a setting of five mediaeval carols in her typically approachable style. The choir brought off the contrasts between the individual carols well and gave a completely committed performance. This was preceded by the beautiful Ukrainian Carol of the bells and an American flavour was added by Mel Tormé’s ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ and not least by Robert Sudall’s spirited piano improvisation on ‘Let it snow’ and ‘Merry little Christmas’. Throughout Robert was the most reliable of accompanists and his improvisation was as always a highlight of the evening!