“My ego is my amigo,” trilled Scotland’s finest in his encore performance of Valentine Card, a hymn to himself by Jeremy Nicholas that played into the gregarious tenor’s hands. Except there’s nothing a vainglorious about Nicky Spence, a man whose bonhomie conceals a serious artist of prodigious gifts.

Nicky Spence © David Bebber
Nicky Spence
© David Bebber

That witty ditty was the only Christmas cracker in a recital that nonetheless overflowed with seasonal goodies. The second half was a garland of Yuletide music, some full-on, some tenuously linked but all of it thrillingly performed by Spence and the heroic Roger Vignoles. Thea Musgrave’s A Song for Christmas is determinedly an anti-carol: declamatory as befits a stentorian voice and underpinned by a febrile piano part, it stood in sharp contrast to its gentle successor, O men from the fields, a pastoral number from 1913 by Herbert Hughes.

Thus the tone was set for a shrewdly programmed hour of contrasts. The Monkey’s Carol was squeezed for humour above Stanford’s rocking, Dolly Suite-inflected accompaniment, but gave way to a darker hue for Respighi’s reflective Nevicata. Rodrigo’s Pastorcito santo was charming if rosebud-sugared; Debussy’s carol for homeless children Noël des enfants qui n’ont pas de maisons, his deathbed song from 1915, crackled with righteous anger, while Lili Boulanger’s Au pied de mon lit is not about Christmas at all but was doubly welcome for its pure devotional flavour. Spence and Vignoles found sensual joy in two Strauss settings and lent an unexpected layer of camp to Hugo Wolf’s rollicking Epiphanias, a song that characterises three wise men to within an inch of their lives.

Who would have foreseen that Benjamin Britten’s That yongë child would sit so affectingly for tenor and piano when divorced from the rest of A Ceremony of Carols? And who could listen to a true Scot sing the same composer’s Soutar settings, Who are these Children, and not be moved? This rare complete performance of a late Britten masterpiece (Spence's fellow-tenor Ian Bostridge won’t touch the dialect numbers, only the plain English settings) was the high point of a superb evening, with Vignoles outstandingly eloquent – his pianism made Nightmare sound like a rancid Tubular Bells – and Spence bravely conveying the stark hopelessness that turned The Children into a shattering prelude to The Auld Aik, the Lyke-Wake Dirge of despair that closes the cycle.

More Scottish inspiration completed the first half of an enchanting evening, with songs from Schumann’s Myrten progressively muted, refulgent and swaggering, and three of Shostakovich’s Romances to ‘English’ poets (in this case the not-so-Anglo Robert Burns) irresistibly coloured by Spence’s Scottish vowels and enriched by the fruitily tripping piano of Vignoles. A festive jig was danced by all.

*****