Carol Services Review

Attending my first three Carol Services, in addition to the magical candlelit Advent Carol Service, was pure pleasure. Conducted by Philip Dukes, the Choir rose to the occasion hugely. With an atmosphere imbued by the strong presence of the Chaplain, positive participation from successive congregations and universally well-pitched and paced readings, the reputation of Marlborough’s Carol Service was handsomely maintained in 2012. Of course, much of this has to do with the outstanding organ playing of Ian Crabbe, whose voluntaries both before and after the service brought true dignity to the occasions.

One old Marlburian announced that, for him, the opening lines of Once In Royal David’s City at Marlborough, evoked the start of Christmas every year. Three separate soloists brought true poise to this singular moment. As the Choir fought valiantly to keep the second verse from going sharp so the rising atmosphere was picked up by the congregation.

Soon the Choir were to have their own individualised moments. Sandström’s Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungenwas set in a semi-circle. This piece could carry the danger of sounding like an orchestra tuning up. However, that was easily averted and the shimmering effect of the music deftly handled. With the bold enunciation of the line mitten im kalten winter (‘amid the cold of winter’). So the winter blasts of early December were communicated.

The programme proceeded at good pace with many features proving outstanding. Boris Ord’s Adam Lay Ybounden, so well-known, was taken at quite a lick and turned into something of a race between the antiphonal sides as they hurtled towards the final phrase Deo gracias! Taverner’s The Lamb, a notoriously difficult piece to keep in pitch, worked stunningly. It was intensely tight with excellent diction and a deeply sonorous conclusion.

Britain’s most popular carol, Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter negotiated the tricky final verse What can I give Him, poor as I am? with ease whilst also featuring some most effective solo singing both by the sopranos and tenors. Finally, the large choir, reached home territory with Robin Nelson’s Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. This was crisp and effective.

The congregation picked up the traditional great hymns with zest. In particular, O Come All Ye Faithfuland Hark! The Herald Angels Sing had a robust zeal to them. That said, it always amazes me how everyone goes so silent in the opening two lines of the refrain O come, let us adore him, this can lead to rather a rugby song effect when all crash in on the final line. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and O Little Town of Bethlehem reminded us that this is more than a mere concert. Thinking ahead, it would be interesting to see a greater concentration of a slightly smaller choir for one or two items. Naturally, one would wish for as many to take part in this greatest of all enterprises which mixes all nationalities, boys and girls and any age. But there are new tricks to be played in future Carol Services which can give further continuity and edge.

Suffice it to say that this time the direction of Philip Dukes proved exemplary and his energetic conducting was an example of total professional engagement in an enterprise that enables one to appreciate the remarkable Chapel of St Michael and All Angels with its reredos seen at its finest.


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