Review: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Juice Vocal Ensemble and The York Waits, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 11 and 13

TUESDAY night marked a festive homecoming for University of York alumni Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey and Kerry Andrew as Juice Vocal Ensemble made their York Early Music Christmas Festival debut.

Juice demonstrated considerable vocal prowess and innovative performance in a programme that spanned wintery music from Coventry Carol to Kate Bush's December Will Be Magic Again. Everyday objects used in unexpected ways to evoke the bitter chill of the darkest days of winter – such as the beating of gongs and wine glasses in Andrew’s arrangement of Sans Day Carol – made the concert as fascinating to watch as it was to hear.

The evening also saw several premieres. Benjamin Tassie’s spirited setting of Annie Freud’s humorous poem Sun allowed Juice’s flair for drama to come to the fore. Phil Maguire’s /SOUCH/DRON/HUM was evocative of the eerie stillness of the cold, with creative use of tinfoil portraying tentative steps in the snow, while tuned wine and beer bottles added greatly to Chris Warner’s lively Shakespearean song Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind.

The other commissions took a more melancholy tone: Alison Willis’s setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver was truly haunting, and Emily Hall’s interpretation of Agnieska Dale’s 4.05 compellingly told the heart-wrenching tale of a break-up on the shortest day of the year. These intriguing compositions can be heard on Juice’s new release, Snow Queens, available from

Also in attendance at the festival were the hugely popular York Waits, bringing their signature combination of historical accuracy and informal performance to a selection of traditional Christmas music from across Europe.

Yorkshire’s own Nowell: Tydynges Trew showed off Deborah Catterall’s beautifully clear soprano and the delightful French melody Picardy displayed the unwavering communication and easy rapport between the instrumentalists. When recorders, sackbut, strings and voice came together for a series of versions of In Dulci Jubilo, the result was a dazzling seasonal celebration which was met with rapturous applause from the sold-out audience.

The Waits’ concert was characteristically infectious and, as always, they brought music from days gone by to vivid, brilliant life. "Make We Joy Now In This Fest", indeed.

Alice Masterson