Reviews

SOMETHING FOR ALMOST EVERYONE
Peter Lutton

Once again it is a privilege to write about the latest offering from Epsom Choral Society. A good crowd at St Martin’s Church heard a very varied programme which had something for almost everyone – baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century; Italian, German, Hungarian and British; sacred and … well, perhaps it is too much ask for it to have included both sacred and secular. From this it might be thought that the music would all be too serious, but inclusion of short (and well-known) items and the light textures and in general brisk tempi of the larger items meant that this was not so. The six strings of the London Sinfonia led by Julian Leaper were light but sufficient in the acoustic and the organist, Edward Batting, was once again in excellent form. How pleasing it was to hear the church organ in use for several items, to great effect. Equally, the small church electronic organ was more than adequate as a continuo instrument in the Pergolesi and the Buxtehude.

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The choir's guest conductor, John Gibbons, kept the tone of the summer concert informal with his interesting introductions and amusing observations (cover needed while the organist energetically ran up and down the loft stairs). This reviewer did however attempt to listen to as much as possible of the Mozart Week on Radio 3 to which John referred. It is of course daunting for anyone to have to take up the baton at short notice, so trepidation on both sides was understandable. However, for choristers there is nothing like a challenge, and if the Pergolesi Magnificat at the start of the concert had its ups and downs, by the end of the evening there was little doubt that the choir had full confidence in their conductor and were really enjoying themselves. Their enthusiasm communicated itself to the audience and the length of the final applause said it all.

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It would be churlish to point out the odd fluffed entry here or a few heads in the copy there when overall the music was such a pleasure to hear. The Pergolesi Magnificat (another composer who, like Mozart, died tragically young) started with soaring sopranos yet with an overall choral sound that was not too heavy, given the choir’s size. However, passages for soloists were sung by all with varying degrees of success. For contrast, perhaps such sections could have been given to Soprano 1 or Alto 1, though on the whole the basses and tenors were clear enough, once the feeling of being exposed was overcome. The final Sicut Erat was clearly very well known and very confident, though more tenor would have been nice. In the current seating plan the tenor section has to fight its way past the basses and one wonders if there might possibly be a more effective layout given the relative numbers in each section. All in all, this was a very good start to an ambitious programme.

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As an impressionable teenager, your reviewer’s introduction to Britten was this Jubilate Deo of 1961. Such a gem is typical of Britten’s often spare but easily singable style of choral writing and the organ part is a delightful equal with its birdlike twitterings and scampering runs. The performance brought out these qualities and was confident and strong, as befits this well-known and well-loved piece. A similar recent classic, Listen, Sweet Dove by Bill Ives, former tenor in the King’s Singers, came next and its lyrical qualities were evident. Though it is generally the province of much smaller choirs, the performance was well up to the mark. Yet another classic followed, the Geistliches Lied by Brahms, which again has a place in many singers’ hearts. Though an early composition, it has many of Brahms’ familiar fingerprints in what the excellent programme notes (via Jon Pullinger) referred to as "autumnal, passionate and romantic, yet controlled, refined and infused with melancholy" style – the sort of piece the listener wants to get out and play or sing through later. The size of the choir is a positive in something like this and indeed the performance was warm and compelling.

In Mozart’s famous short motet Ave Verum Corpus, written for a village church, we have a great composer able to write for the ordinary singer in a local choir. I see no reason for such a familiar piece to be left out of concerts such as this and clearly the choir agreed, giving it suitable care and attention. The contrast with the Missa Brevis in G that followed was all the more interesting as it showed Mozart again fulfilling the demand of the moment. Such a mass had to be short because the archbishop was often anxious to be off hunting, but the music is still uplifting, even if it has only a short time to make its point. John Gibbons’ observations about the potential unsuitability of such pieces for concert performance were interesting but were, one suspects, more applicable to the larger masses of Schubert and Beethoven. The performance worked very well – the solo sections were more secure and the frequent tempo changes also came off. The tempo for the Benedictus seemed slow; perhaps it is a matter of taste. The Agnus Dei was particularly enjoyable – the solo sections were excellent and the final Dona Nobis Pacem came off particularly well.

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The second half started with the very well known Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Bach. In my copy of the cantata from which it comes, one verse stands at the end of each half. It was good to hear it all – may I suggest though, with a short familiar piece like this, that it be done from memory? Perhaps that could be tried with the other short pieces we heard – many members of the choir will have sung them frequently and all who do this say it is a liberating exercise. This certainly had a confident sense of flow and the strings’ sense of line showed how well this musical style decorates the plain hymn tune in true baroque fashion.

Next, a new piece by John Rutter, whose contribution to English choral music is immense. Sadly there are those who are rather dismissive about him, but the fact remains that he writes (and brilliantly arranges) music that choirs the length and breadth of the land can sing and enjoy while other composers write music that may be very progressive but is really the property of professional singers. Perhaps this new offering is not his greatest work (only time will tell) but as always it is very well crafted and structured so we can be sure this piece will soon join the repertoire. In the performance, the lowish first note did not have a great impact and the six-part section needed a little polish, but the very exciting climax was well handled and everyone obviously enjoyed it.

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Kodaly’s work on behalf of choral music in Hungary is not as well known as it might be here, but the strength of choral music in that country is largely because of his efforts. This performance of the Pange Lingua showed the ability of the choir to switch styles (and ranges – the bottom D flat in the bass part was audible!) with aplomb. The unaccompanied section went very well as did the section in multiple parts and the changes of key were well executed. Along with its interesting organ introduction, this was a most enjoyable item. The two Rutter shorts that followed are again well known but nonetheless welcome and it is interesting to hear them sung by a larger choir. Your scribe felt that the organ was a fraction loud in The Lord bless you but otherwise everything was quite in order. Likewise the Gaelic Blessing received a s ensitive performance with an excellent climax. Rutter’s skill is revealed in the interesting way the soprano part is basically in two-beats-in-a-bar rhythm, while everyone else is in three. Once again, art conceals art.

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The final offering, Alles was ihr tut, by Buxtehude was an unusual way of ending a concert but it worked. The strings made an excellent contribution (just too much bass occasionally?) and the choral writing in its various forms came across clearly both in the chordal sections and those that were polyphonic. The basses’ contribution was very well sung, with a clear focus; indeed all the parts acquitted themselves well, sounding as fresh at the end as at the start of the evening. I scribbled the words lively/confident/balanced – arrange them in a sentence of your own choice.

Once again, a memorable concert enjoyed by a substantial turn out, so clearly Epsom Choral Society goes from strength to strength. We can all look forward to something extra special as the choir rises to the vocal challenge that is Bach’s Mass in B minor when it is given in November.

Peter Lutton was organist and Assistant Director of Music at St John’s School, Leatherhead, from 1976 to 2010, and has been organist and choirmaster at St Nicolas, Great Bookham, since 2003.

Epsom Choral Society is a Registered Charity, number 273757