Swale Singers give voice to the real St Nicolas

Baritone Edward Seymour and choir sing Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

By Betsy Everett

In the lovely setting of St Andrew’s Church, Aysgarth, the Swale Singers’ Christmas concert promised an evening’s respite from the troubles of a world gone mad, with a powerful reminder that it was ever thus, and sometimes worse.

The story of St Nicolas as told through Benjamin Britten’s 1948 cantata, is about as far removed as you can get from his reincarnation as the jovial, red-suited Santa Claus flying through the night sky to dispense John Lewis grand pianos to small children.

It’s a pity the jolly one, courtesy of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ won out in our national imagination. The story of the saintly Nicolas of Myra, who sold all he had to help the poor and raged against an unjust and sinful world, calling for its redemption through faith, is not only truer to the Christmas message, but certainly makes for a more meaty (literally) musical feast.
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Acts of near-cannibalism as small boys are slaughtered, pickled, and proffered to starving beggars; women bought out of “shameful sin;” the executioner’s axe stopped in the nick of time; shipwrecks, storms and raging tempests, are not everybody’s idea of a jolly Christmas concert, but that was never on the menu of the serious-minded Swale Singers.

It’s hard to do justice in a few words to their rendition of Britten’s brilliantly constructed cradle-to-grave narrative, told through the strong voice of professional solo tenor Jonathan Cooke as Nicolas, patron saint of children, seamen, voyagers and scholars, with the choir in its various parts providing the context.

For those, like me, not remotely familiar with the piece, it can be a hard one to get to grips with (Britten often is) at first hearing. It’s a tribute to this 40-strong choir under the recently installed Peter Stallworthy making his debut as conductor, that it could nevertheless make such an impact. And, thanks to the world wide web and YouTube, it’s readily available to re-cap on should the mood take you.

Maybe I was in the wrong place, acoustically as well as musically, to fully appreciate the choir’s efforts, but from the second pew back the strong tenor voice at times seemed to overwhelm them. Especially where the music was deliberately discordant as the story demanded, their voices sounded muffled and uncertain.

Like church-going and the Christian faith – in deeply secular Britain at least – choral music is increasingly the preserve of the elderly, and the Swale Singers are no exception to the rule. The all-too-brief appearance of the boy sopranos from Cleveland Philharmonic Junior Choir to play the Three Pickled Boys (Ben Evans, Ryan Moghareh and  Daniel Fergie) and Willis Reilly from Bainbridge as the young Nicolas, provided the inevitable contrast. The choir is calling for, and needs, younger voices to join and sustain it.

That is not to detract in any way from the talent of this remarkably dedicated choir who in the first half of the evening brought us the more familiar and lovely Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams, and Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, a setting of part of Robert Bridges’ poem, ‘Noel: Christmas Eve 1913.’  Another – to me – previously unheard piece. I need to get out more. The talent of pianist Corinne Johnson, now the Swale Singers’ regular accompanist, should not go unremarked. As one chorister noted: “She knocks spots off Elton John.”

NB: The Swale Singers celebrate their 30th anniversary next year, not their 25th, as I incorrectly stated in the post dated 26 November.