Christmas Virtuosity – and Fun!

maddy-1-revYou can always rely on the Milverton Concert Society to come up with something memorable and entertaining for their Christmas offering, and they didn’t disappoint this year. We’ve had the hugely enjoyable Carnival Band twice before, but this time they were joined by the legendary Maddy Prior, who has been singing with them since 1987. The programme was very varied, and gave all members their chance to shine, much to our enjoyment. I’m not going to give an item by item review, but there were many brilliant moments which must be mentioned, within the context of a totally enjoyable evening of first class music-making.

What struck me very forcibly was that many of the carols we heard were totally familiar but they sounded excitingly different. The reason is that having become so used to hearing them through the filter of smooth, elegant, ‘King’s College Cambridge’ like performances, we forget that many of them are folk carols and were originally sung by ordinary people using popular, even rustic, instruments. The sound we got was refreshingly new and most enjoyable.

Band founder Andy Watts displayed stunning virtuosity on a bewildering variety of wind instruments throughout the evening, but special praise must be awarded to him and to Giles Lewin for flawless articulation on two recorders in ‘The Dancing Robin’ and ‘Entre le Boeuf et L’Ȃne Gris’. The rhythms in the first are very asymmetric and the players’ precision and tight ensemble were truly jaw-dropping. I’ve also never before heard a combination of two sets of bagpipes and a mandolin, but Andy, Giles and Steve Vitale made it sound completely natural!

Maddy Prior’s vocal contribution to the evening was superb, as we would have expected. My only reservation was that at times she seemed to be a bit over-miked and there was an occasional loss of clarity in the words as a result. I also found her unceasing jigging about when the band were playing somewhat distracting, but that just may be me being an old curmudgeon. Apart from her solo brilliance, Maddy blended beautifully with the band in the unaccompanied vocal ensembles. The sound in ‘Shepherds Arise’ was glorious –
sonorous, resonant and pitch perfect. In fact this beautifully balanced and solid ensemble sound was maintained throughout all of the unaccompanied items.

The sound of two shawms (mediaeval reed instruments, like oboes on steroids) was ear-splitting in ‘The Boar’s Head’, a tour de force. ‘A Wassail’ was a gorgeously lilting 3/4 song, extolling the virtues of warming drinks to keep out the winter cold. (The interval wine and mince pies reinforced this concept beautifully – thanks, Milverton!) The idea of applying a jazz format to Marc Antoine Charpentier was brilliantly successful as was the vigorously ‘swung’ version of ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’. The highlight for me was again one of the unaccompanied numbers – ‘Poor Little Jesus’ could easily have become a wallow in sentimentality, but the beautiful harmonies and crisp articulation avoided this.

The hundreds of candles around the church, the buzz of a full house and performers of the highest calibre made this an evening of sheer enjoyment. We are now into what I call the ‘Lullay’ season and I am sure there will be many Christmas concerts all over the place. They’ll have to go some to beat this one.

Review by Harold W. Mead