Greyfriars Kirk is the perfect setting for a Christmas concert of sacred classical music. Given the Kirk’s long history, it was probably around when two of the 16th century composers featured, Byrd and Dowland, were working. Also, Greyfriars has been a regular Edinburgh Festival venue and has seen much sacred music over the years.
The concert begins with a series of 10 Carols that Britten wrote during his voyage back home from the US in 1942: A Ceremony of Carols. They are sung by the women of the SCO Chorus (Britten originally wrote them for boy trebles), who walk slowly from the back of the church, singing beautifully: a magic moment. They are expertly accompanied by Sharron Griffiths on the harp, who also plays a number of solos between the carols.
The second substantial work in the first half of the concert is Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noël, and the 20 men of the chorus join the 30 women to produce wonderful, darkly shaded melodies. The chorus sing them perfectly.
After the interval, the second half opens with a bang, Scotland’s leading composer James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn, which is a searing affirmation of MacMillan’s deep religious beliefs, and his great musicality. Then follow two lovely baroque works by Byrd, and a more modern setting of Blake’s The Lamb by Taverner, where the choir separate into parts distributed throughout the church.
The concert finishes with the sweepingly melodic O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, where the Choir come together again under the expert conducting of Gregory Batsleer. It is a suitable ending to what is a gem of a concert. Xmas in Edinburgh is filled with wonderful religious music, including a number of Messiahs. They will be fortunate if they reach the high standards of the SCO Chorus in Greyfriars tonight.