Oxford Town Hall was certainly decked with boughs of holly for last night’s Christmas special. Featuring the twelve-piece Orchestra of St John’s and a carol-singing choir, the scene was set for a cosy evening away from the cold and drizzle outside. Maybe the best way to describe this concert is by comparing it to a festive CD. The performances were of mixed quality: although some were a joy to listen to, others were less gripping and faded into the background.

Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway © Paul Cox
Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway
© Paul Cox

Sir James Galway took the leading role for the opening Vivaldi concerto. His reputation speaks for itself, but he didn’t seem to be on top form for this particular concert. Although his characteristic silky tone was there, some notes were split and there were fleeting moments of inaccurate intonation (even when taking his wide vibrato into account). The performance was nice enough, but that was the problem: his interpretation didn’t seem to cover any new ground, and it felt strangely flat.

The Orchestra of St John’s were reluctant to take risks, and seemed almost wary of disturbing the soloist. More dynamic gradation would certainly have helped to add sparkle to the music. Although all of the playing was neat and accurate, Howard Moody’s subtle and stylish continuo accompaniment in the second movement was particularly noteworthy.
The OSJ were almost unrecognisable in the following Corelli. The Christmas Concerto was dynamic from start to finish, with a firm sound and well-contoured lines. The drama which was lacking in the Vivaldi was present in spades: the players drove into the chains of suspensions, and conductor John Lubbock sustained a good momentum (aided by the agile bass part). The concertino players were all fine, but the thoughtful lyricism of the cellist stood out. Between the insistent first movement and the warmth of the Finale, their delivery of this frequently performed work was full of conviction.

The second Vivaldi concerto of the night saw Lady Jeanne Galway join her husband on the stage. She proved herself to have a good depth to her strong lower register, but this occasionally needed greater nuance. It was disappointing to see the flair which the OSJ possessed in the Corelli vanish, and this wasn’t helped by the slow-moving tempo which Lubbock set for the second movement. The minore interruptions needed to pack more of a punch, and it was such detail which I felt that these capable performers could have further explored to lend the music that extra je ne sais quoi.

If the first half featured the “serious” works, the second contained the typical Christmas jollies (including carols for all). Unfortunately, it was hard to hear the choir, flutes and orchestra over the singing of the audience. These carols were separated by arrangements of Christmas classics in which the flutes played a starring role. Soprano Hannah Davey joined the stage for a few numbers, her tender performance of Warlock’s Lullaby my Jesus displaying her clean tones. The flute numbers contained a few rhythmic corners where the Galways fell out of sync with one another, but a perky version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” earned enthusiastic applause, causing them to return to the stage for an encore.

I came to the concert excited to see such a renowned flautist, but left with a tinge of disappointment after a series of safe performances. I recognise that the pieces in the second half were only meant to be light “lollipops”, but I struggled to find enough of a spark in the performance. Even though all of the pieces have been performed time and time again, the OSJ’s performance of the Corelli showed that it was possible to inject new life into the familiar.