Schola Cantorum

St Mary's Church, Iffley

By Nicola Lisle

"We want to sing you a really cheesy song", conductor James Burton told us, whereupon the choir launched into Wonderful Christmastime. Not the usual Schola Cantorum fare, certainly - but perhaps I should mention that this was the encore, a chance for the choir to relax and have fun. And after the treat they had just given us, I suspect few would begrudge them that pleasure.

The main programme was more typical of this exceptional choir. In celebration of the Advent season, this was a garland of seasonal delights, mostly fairly obscure, but with some familiar songs sparkling through like tinsel. The centrepiece was Britten's Christ's Nativity, the earliest of the composer's extended choral works, and an embryonic indication of the maturity he would later reach with St Nicholas and A Ceremony of Carols. The choir gave a carefully measured account of the piece, with some attractive solo work from Naomi Clark and Lucy Page. The clarity of the Iffley Church acoustics helped too, carrying the sound effortlessly aloft.

A quartet of pieces from the Renaissance - by English composers Byrd and Tallis and Italian composers Palestrina and Victoria - demonstrated the choir's aptitude for the polyphony and rich textures so typical of the period. Yet, with Roderick Williams's 0 Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, they also showed how well they adapt to new challenges. And this was a challenge indeed, requiring outstanding interpretative and improvisational skills, which come only from an immense musicality - which these singers possess in abundance.

On more familiar territory, there was Burton's arrangement of Stille Nacht, and Cornelius's The Three Kings, with the solo line beautifully intoned by James Ballance, a baritone of exceptional calibre - this, for me, was the highlight of the evening.