One can perhaps feel a modicum of sympathy for Nicolaus Esterházy. Like those unfortunate children destined to be born on the 25th of December, he too shared his name day with the feast of St Nicholas. Whist this may have resulted in fewer gifts for the young princeling, we do know that later in life, as Joseph Haydn's erstwhile patron, this fortuitous conjunction provided the catalyst for one of the composer's finest, if little known, masses. The Missa Sancti Nicolai (or Nikolaimesse) was written in 1772, in honour of the Prince, for four soloists, choir, strings and two oboes.
On a rather moist Saturday evening, the St Richard Singers wisely chose this original arrangement to commence their charming and varied seasonal programme "A Babe is Born" without the bombastic addition of trumpets and timpani revised in a later variation. They were joined by the newly-formed Noviomagus Ensemble, all under the impeccable direction of Jake Barlow, the St Richard Singers' youthful conductor.
There was something rather warm and poignant within the intimate surroundings of St George's Church in Whyke. The parish provided the choir, orchestra and audience, and together with the sublime soloists - all students at Chichester University, they added a heart-warming sense of local unanimity and worship throughout the drizzly December evening. The sweet, pastoral nature of the Kyrie was perfectly captured by the interweaving soloists and chorus, with the dynamic subtleties of the Gloria presented accurately, in a way that is often troublesome for a larger choir. Soprano Alice Howell's light and euphonic solos were a particular highlight, perfectly befitting the chamber setting. Even the usually solemn Agnus Dei managed to evoke a sense of dignity rather than the melancholic. The reprise of the melody for Dona nobis pacem completed overall a delightful performance.
Following an interval for spiced wine and sustenance, we were greeted, appropriately, with Gustav Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter. I can't help thinking they missed a trick here; Harold Darke's setting of Christina Rossetti's haunting poem is more harmonically stimulating and would have provided a platform to hear further the mellifluous tenor, Harry Forester. Still, the St Richard soprano, Rebecca Grove, gave an admirable solo for Holst's somewhat more prosaic arrangement.
Not so for the other carols: an exciting and eclectic mix of Rutter, Bennet and Wood, sprinkled with humorous readings and more traditional fayre for audience support. William Mathias' Sir Christèmas was delivered with suitable aplomb and skilfully encapsulated both the spirit of the season and versatility of the choir.
The programme was wrapped up neatly with Arthur Warrell's uplifting We wish you a Merry Christmas, the applause long and well-deserved. Haydn, always a pious man, once wrote: "When I think upon my God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen."
This sentiment abounded in the St. Richard Singers' bright and blissful performance throughout; I'm sure he would have approved.