Christmas Sparkle lived up to its name from the start with an energetic African Noel, providing a welcome audience warmer, sustained with the advent hymn Lo he comes with Clouds Descending. The choir returned with a powerfully harmonic rendition of A Babe is Born, followed by O Little Town of Bethlehem, notable for confidently alternating well-balanced voice parts.

Next came a harp solo of Henriette Renié's Légende, a symphonic tone poem based on a French ghost story, superbly played by guest artiste Elisabeth Bass. An interactive choir-audience version of John Rutter's Star Carol was followed by three carols from the Mill Mead School choir, whose enthusiastic faces enlivened the evening. Christ was born on Christmas Day, followed up with A Lullaby of the Nativity, which was the harmonic high-point of Part One.

Part Two started strongly, with five from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, culminating in the superbly rendered stretto sections of This little Babe and Deo Gracias, with choir and harp melding at times into a single instrument. Three more songs from Mill Mead led into a magical rendition from Elizabeth Bass of Liszt's Liebestraum no. 3.

After a powerfully harmonious Once, as I remember, the choral high spot of the second half was John Rutter's arrangement of King Jesus Hath a Garden, with contributions of intense musicality from Elizabeth and flute soloist Sally Quantrill. Audience participation was strong in Part Two, highlights being Lord of the Dance and Hark the Herald.

Derek Harrison deserves congratulation for blending the familiar with sufficient novelty to keep the programme fresh. Christopher Muhley's consistently brilliant organ and piano accompaniments, and his ability to move seamlessly between the two, deserve high praise also, as does the incomparable Roger Mullis, reprising his role as master of ceremonies to punctuate music and song with a blend of captivating detail and seasonable humour.

Keith Wilkinson

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