St James Priory, Bristol
Although Bristol's St James Priory is the city's oldest building – parts date from the 12th century – it boasts architectural features from nearly every major period (including the 21st: following recent restoration work, there's even underfloor heating). Exultate's candlelit programme of unaccompanied Christmas carols similarly spanned the centuries, balancing celebratory and contemplative.
Conducted by David Ogden, the choir brought clarity to the lightly sprung rhythms of William Mathias's Hodie, Christus Natus Est, and made William Byrd's energetic Vigilate ring through the church. They may be 40 singers strong – and well able to bring off a sequence such as Poulenc's challenging Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël – but it was perhaps their control that was most impressive. They offered infinite gradations of volume, from richly resonant fortissimo to whispered pianissimo.
In carol arrangements by David Willcocks, Exultate produced a purity of sound worthy of King's College, Cambridge, and their precise delivery and diction meant that new works such as Francis Pott's Balulalow were also communicated directly. This versatility didn't always work, however: Peter Knight's souped-up arrangement of Tormé and Wells's The Christmas Song, the sole secular item, felt wrong. But they proved themselves capable of producing the tingle factor when the singers processed to form a complete circle around the audience to sing Gustav Holst's version of In the Bleak Midwinter. Nothing could have been simpler or more beautiful.
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