After the disappointments last Christmas, with the lack of musical festivities, choirs and orchestras across the UK are back with a vengeance. With concerts, carol services and family music events across the country, there’s plenty to look forward to this Christmas. Grab your diaries and start planning.
The best Christmas classical concerts 2021
York, 3-11 December
For nearly a quarter of a century, York’s seasonal festival has signalled the countdown to Christmas. Prisma dive into the world of the seicento, Siglo de Oro heads to Mexico, cornetto and violin are challenged to a pan-European duel, and 2021 ends in a blaze of Bachian glory with the B minor Mass performed by The Yorkshire Bach Choir and Baroque Soloists.
Sharing its yuletide bounty between Manchester and London’s Wigmore Hall, the vocal quartet observes a medieval Christmas. Gregorian chant is threaded through a programme featuring Mass movements by Queldryk and Leonel Power, motets by Dunstable and Walter Frye and a generous helping of ‘Anon’.
Royal Festival Hall, London, 4 December
As his St John and St Luke Passions suggest, James MacMillan isn’t daunted by the shadow of JS Bach. Now comes a Christmas Oratorio (drawing on Latin liturgical texts, 16th- and 17th-century poetry and a Scottish lullaby) to extend the overlap. The UK premiere is conducted by Mark Elder, with soloists soprano Lucy Crowe and baritone Roderick Williams.
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 4 December
From Howard Blake’s The Snowman to Handel’s Messiah conducted by Christian Curnyn, the orchestra is awash with Christmas spirit. And it all starts early in the month with conductor Elim Chan, who unwraps some choice delights from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker alongside glittering Ravel.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 5 December
Bob Chilcott’s sequence of seven Advent Antiphons supplies the focus for the choir’s mini-pilgrimage to five venues. Traditional fare rubs shoulders with Advent music by Victoria and Guerrero, and Magnificat settings by Arvo Pärt and, again, Victoria.
Dome Concert Hall, Brighton, 5 December
Pianist Joanna MacGregor, the orchestra’s incoming music director, has already put her own stamp on it. ‘A Celtic Christmas’ invites accordionist and clog dancer Amy Thatcher plus piper Kathryn Tickell (see right) for a seasonal bran tub containing folk-inspired works by James MacMillan and Vaughan Williams.
Town Hall, Birmingham, 5 December
Among a dozen concerts in its ‘Christmas Music by Candlelight’ series, Jeffrey Skidmore’s choir side-steps into Advent Bach: the cantatas Wachet auf and Nun komm der Heiden Heiland. Setting texts by Kurt Masur and Greta Thunberg, there’s also Liz Dilnot Johnson’s 2019 cantata I stand at the door.
Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon, 7 December
Directed by violinist David Le Page, the orchestra teams up with female vocal quintet Papagena and narrator David Acton for ‘The Twelve Tales of Christmas’, a seasonal selection box of words and music including excerpts from Dickens, TS Eliot, CS Lewis and Dylan Thomas.
Christ Church, Grantham, 8 December
The early music ensemble brings its voices, fidel, harp, bells and bagpipes to bear on ‘Lullay Myn Lykynge’ – a festive adventure on the Celtic fringes of Europe including a silvery take on In Dulci Jubilo and the plaintive Irish carol Don Oíche Úd im Beithil.
Lewes, 8-12 December
The Autumn tour behind them, the chorus and tour orchestra take centre stage with a four-concert cornucopia of opera highlights and yuletide classics. They’re wrapped around a single performance (on 10 December) of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by Aidan Oliver.
St John’s Smith Square, London, 10-23 December
Christmas isn’t a time for tinkering with the tried and tested. In its 36th incarnation, the Christmas Festival at St John’s ends with artistic director Stephen Layton conducting his choir Polyphony in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. The night before, he tackles four cantatas from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. And in a Marian slant, the Tallis Scholars splice Stravinsky and Arvo Pärt with Guerrero and Isaac.
St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 11 December
John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi forces settle into their first ever UK home with a performance of Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ. The period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique are in attendance.
Dorchester Abbey, 11 December
The orchestra will bring Viennoiserie to the Oxfordshire Abbey Church on New Year’s Eve, but before that, on 18 December, the annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. Launching the festivities here is Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with harpist Elizabeth Bass and the OSJ Oxford Voices.
Kings Place, London, 12 December
‘In Winter’s House’ is a concert that includes Joanna Marsh’s eponymous work originally written for the vocal group Tenebrae. Owain Park directs a programme with ‘ancient and modern’ as its watchword. Michael Praetorius complements Jonathan Harvey, and Tallis’s Videte miraculum prefaces a serene miniature by Cheryl Frances-Hoad.
Ulster Museum, Belfast, 16, 17 December
Sestina might be associated with the music of the Baroque and earlier, but not exclusively so. Christmas means ‘Carols at the Museum’, and alongside music by Johann Hermann Schein and Francis Poulenc, there’s also the premiere of a new commission from Eoghan Desmond.
Colyer-Fergusson Hall, Canterbury, 17 December
The 12-voice early music ensemble navigates a musical retelling of the nativity story through the lens of Renaissance composers such as Byrd and Tallis, Victoria and Josquin. They sign off with John Sheppard’s great Christmas respond, Verbum caro factum est.
Snape Maltings, 17-19 December
Music is at the heart of Snape’s festive weekend, with stars in the East ranging from Tenebrae’s account of Messiah with the Academy of Ancient Music to an evening of songs and carols with Bryn Terfel and friends.
St George’s Bristol, 19 December
There are excerpts from Messiah and Corelli’s evergreen Christmas Concerto, plus JS Bach too. But the OAE’s Baroque Christmas, directed by Steven Devine, also strikes out on the road less travelled with music by Buxtehude, Schütz, Charpentier and Praetorius.
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 22, 23 December
The Hallé screens The Snowman complete with Howard Blake’s score conducted by Ben Palmer. First, Lynley Dodd’s irrepressible creation Hairy Maclary (from Donaldson’s Dairy) meets the orchestra in three special stories with music by Tom Redmond.
Wigmore Hall, London, 31 December
Wigmore Hall might not advertise a Christmas early music festival, but how else to characterise the choice ‘season’s greetings’ from Gothic Voices, the Gabrieli Consort, Vox Luminis, the Dunedin Consort, Solomon’s Knot and Arcangelo? On New Year’s Eve, Siglo de Oro is bound for the New World and a Christmas in Pueblo anchored by Padilla’s Missa Joseph fili David.