Review: “A Christmas Carol” with the Portsmouth Choral Union

Portsmouth Choral Union gave us a delightful start to the business end of the Christmas season in their concert on Saturday, mixing traditional items with less familiar offerings. This was a ‘game’ of two halves, with well-known carols in the first part giving way to Jonathan Rathbone’s entertaining Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Party, after the interval.

Proceedings opened with a lively, unaccompanied performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High with crisply detailed diction adding to the sparkle. There were also audience participation carols, including God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, While Shepherds Watched and The First Noel, the large audience joining in with gusto.

Baritone Soloist Tom Asher sang a group of three popular Christmas numbers, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire and Adam’s O Holy Night. This final item avoided the customary pitfalls of over-sentimentality and there was momentum maintained throughout. Earlier in the programme, he was particularly effective in Cornelius’s The Three Kings, where he was sensitively accompanied by the chorus.

For the final three numbers in this part of the concert there was a stirring performance of Joubert’s celebrated Torches, a moving account of Berlioz’s The Shepherd’s Farewell, delivered with a fine sustained legato, and the concluding Sussex Carol provided a fitting prelude to the interval drinks!

Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Party was the only item in part two. This is written for chorus, baritone solo, narrator and piano accompaniment; words of the narration are taken from Dickens and text for the songs is by Paul Whitnall. This work requires crisp enunciation from the choir and despite their best efforts in the faster moments, the choir failed at times to win their battle with the lively acoustic of St. Mary’s church. Even so, this did not detract from the enthusiasm and overall enjoyment of their performance. It was good to see and hear St. Mary’s own Canon Bob White, looking appropriately Dickensian, in the role of Narrator.

The concert was accompanied with surety by Ian Richardson on both organ and piano and the evening’s proceedings were well directed with customary flair by conductor David Gostick. It was a satisfied audience indeed who enthused as they made their exit.

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