Although many things continued—the mince pies, the mulled wine, the stunning candle illumination in both halves of the nave and the wonderful playing by Sounding Brass (both outside and in)—‘Carols by Candlelight’ marked a change in musical character from the previous year’s concert of favourites.
Elisabeth’s 2016 choice of programme was altogether more meditative, a little more serious, and included for the first time in recent years some specially chosen readings to develop the Christmas theme. It was refreshing that many of the carols sung by the choir were new to the audience: particularly the Arvo Pärt Christ is the Morning Star and the Josquin Ave Maria. Opening with What Sweeter Music and Warlock’s less familiar setting of Adam lay ybounden, the evening’s early focus was on Mary and the meaning of the star. Then, in ‘Royal David’s City’, the birth came suddenly and dramatically: A Babe is born all of a May by William Matthias. There followed a series of reflections on the power of music and light as the angels appeared to the shepherds—though not without a flash forward to Herod’s massacre in Kenneth Leighton’s innovative Lully, Lulla, Thou little tiny Child. Finally, we entered the stable, bringing ‘our gifts’, via Howells’s profound Here is the Little Door—to reveal the child and his destiny in Bob Chilcott’s For Him All Stars have Shone. All the while, in the background so to speak, we could hear the celebrations and Christmas traditions of ordinary people, as in Vaughan Williams’s roistering Wassail Song, which swells to more than fortissimo as the boozy revellers come through the town and Willcocks’s lesser-known arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy, excitedly mixing duple and triple rhythms. We ended, of course, with the ever popular The Twelve Days of Christmas. Oh, and an encore of Rudolph!