The elusive essence of Advent is a unique, unlikely combination of restrained reverence with joyful, almost jaunty expectation. It is best caught in wholehearted live music making that points and leads us, unresting, unhasting, to Christmas. Such measured momentum, sprightly yet elegant and polished, was ably marshalled and maintained by conductor Robert Hammersley. Consequently, this atmospheric occasion, centred on a sparkling, sprightly performance of Haydn’s confident, adrenaline-rich Nelson Mass and interspersed by choral and congregational carols, was an authentic Advent calendar of musical variety, inspiring rhythm and fine performances.
Ardingly Choral Society, with crisp diction and deftly built crescendos, were exceptionally well drilled and balanced, whether in the vibrant Mass or in a gentle, unhurried O Holy Night, or a sleigh bells-slick Deck the Halls; whether a cappella or with equally exuberant and nimble accompaniment by David Moore (organ), Monika Lavelle (flute) and the string quartet. And rarely has the Pastorale from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto enjoyed such a fresh, elegant and vibrant texture as woven here by Martin Palmer, Tim Miller (violins), Rosemary Cole (viola) and Mike Lavelle (cello).
Though augmenting the chorus with exemplary - undetectable – finesse when required, soloists Olivia Bell, Marianne Goodale (sopranos), Kathryn James (contralto), John Baker (tenor) and David Hannen (bass) were all outstanding, animating both Latin and English texts with passion and precision. Yet perhaps the brightest musical bauble on that Christmas tree from under which he emerged was George Rhodes (treble). His unaccompanied solo first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, projected from near the candlelit altar right across Ardingly College Chapel’s vast space, was as clear, strong, well-paced and moving as any King’s, Cambridge counterpart might wish for on Christmas Eve at 3pm. No wonder the retiring collection for St Peter and St James Hospice was again so generous.
Review by: Melvyn Walmsley