Historic Greyfriars Kirk was the lovely setting for an evening of Christmas music from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus focussing on the wonder, strangeness and joy of the Christmas story. An intriguing programme set the ancient alongside the modern as a series of musical Christmas icons were revealed shining out with brilliance on a dark December night.

Benjamin Britten, journeying back from America with Peter Pears in 1942, picked up a book of old English poetry when the cargo boat called into Halifax. The words inspired his extraordinary A Ceremony of Carols set for upper voices and harp. Like his church parables, the work is bookended with plainchant, and the singers processed down the aisle singing the strange Alleluias. It is a work of simple melodies and Chorus director and conductor Gregory Batsleer emphasised the contrasts with a strident Wolcum Yole full of attack and bite, to the more reflective In Freezing Winter Night with its resolving dissonances. Two choral scholars, soprano Georgina Malcolm and alto Amanda MacLeod took walk out solos, blending perfectly in duet with Malcolm’s sweet bell-clear top notes soaring in That yongë child. Sharron Griffiths’ haunting harp intertwined beautifully with the singers, adding a brittle wintry tone.    

The full choir sang the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël by Poulenc a cappella, the rich motets describing four parts of the Christmas story. Lush, blended singing expressed the deep wonder of the Nativity, followed by a question and response chorus of angels telling what the shepherds saw and the joy of the Good News. There was a hesitancy in the exposed Videntes stellam for upper voices, but once the three wise man and their gifts arrived, the singers embraced the chromatic with a deep peace. Finally, the joy of Christ’s birth was a full choral burst of cheerful exuberance, Batsleer maintaining excitement with dynamic contrasts.

Continuing the ancient and modern theme, the second half consisted of a sequence of music by Byrd and Dowland interspersed with MacMillan, Tavener and Lauridsen. Griffiths returned to play Byrd’s beautiful Pavane and Dowland’s Lachrymae Antiquae Pavan while a semi chorus of twelve sang Byrd’s jubilant Hodie Christus Natus Est and melancholic O admirabile commercium, the singers interweaving their musical lines exquisitely.     

John Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s words The Lamb is now well known, but heard live, its power and beauty can still surprise and overwhelm. In a geographical tour de force, Batsleer circled his singers right round the audience, so it sounded as if we were absolutely integral to this astonishing work. The choir took up the simple melody, embellished it with chromatic harmonies and created a stillness and tender peace that was utterly beautiful, a wonderfully seasonal reflective moment of total immersion.

In contrast, and showing how this chorus can turn on a Christmas silver sixpence, James MacMillan’s wonderful Advent antiphon O Radiant Dawn, sung without scores, was a highlight. The full choir called on the life-affirming light, growing in anticipation yet so tenderly shining on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Batsleer has a good ear for balance, and no section was allowed to dominate. In this powerful emotional work, he built excitement with eager beseeching crescendos before the final resolving Amen. To finish, Morton Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium was a rich spiritual piece on the wonder of the Nativity, based on the Christmas Day Matins responsory. The singing was thoughtful and reflective, permeated with a strange beauty.   

Edinburgh is a winter city of celebration just now with its busy Christmas markets, lively outdoor ice rink and dazzling Street of Light, so celebrating Advent and exploring the spiritual can seem almost counter-cultural, yet Greyfriars was packed to the rafters. The Kirk rather frowns on visual religious imagery, but if the eyes are can’t see, the ears can hear: the SCO Chorus brought a bright intensity to this superb collection of musical Christmas icons.