Peter Lutton

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The latest development in their concert programming saw Epsom Choral Society putting on Janacekís Lordís Prayer of 1901/1906 and Rossiniís Petite Messe Solenelle of 1863, once again in St Martin of Tours church with its spaciousness and its fine acoustic. At least one of these two pieces is not yet standard choral society fare and ECS is to be commended for finding a way of balancing up what would have been, with the Lordís Prayer only, a very short first half. Putting the interval between the Gloria and the Credo in the Messe produced two well-balanced halves. Likewise, the use of the original language for the Janacek will have required some effort on every choir memberís part, as such a tongue as this does not necessarily come easily to us Western Europeans, even if we sing more works in their original tongue than we once did.

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A large audience clearly enjoyed the gentle but persistent rhythms and textures of the Janacek. Harpist Fontane Liang and organist Ben Lewis Smith overcame the challenge of the distance between them with confidence and accuracy, the delicate patterns of the harp complementing the strong solo lines from the organ (this reviewer was very glad to see the large instrument being used here). While all four solo voices were very able, the diction, accent and projection of the tenor, Richard Pinkstone, were particularly commendable. Anyone worried that this music would be dangerously modern was able to relax and enjoy the slowly-changing harmonic progressions which stayed firmly in the late Romantic tradition. Can we entertain the perhaps scurrilous thought that this music was at least one piece that Janacek wanted to sell?

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The choir sang with the clarity and accuracy we now expect as normal from ECS. The placing of the gentlemen in the middle, as was suggested a year or two ago, has led to better audibility and projection - even though your scribe was close to the front, the blend of voices was very good. The choral sound was particularly warm in the third section, Thy will be done. The energy in the fourth section, Give us our daily bread, was notable as were the top B flats. Also commendable was the accuracy and co-ordination of the final two sections. This work deserves many more outings, which will surely come to pass - the performance certainly argued its case very strongly.

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The Mass by Rossini (he called it one of his Sins of Old Age) is a curious work. He certainly put plenty of effort into it and the result is mostly music of quality, but the varying styles of some of its sections can cause some debate. There are movements which are pure opera, so that one might ask whether this is a suitable style for music in church. However, when Rossini feels it is time to write some worthy counterpoint, his fugues stand comparison with the weighty examples to be found in what we might term rather more "churchy" works. So we have to ask: should the devil have all the good tunes? Were we too strait-laced in church in the past? This work encourages us to examine what constitutes religious music and that, I believe, is a good thing. After all, Verdi made us think along similar lines with his 1871 Requiem, though of course no-one is seriously proposing using either work liturgically.

In the Kyrie, there were some effective contrasts with the pianissimo moments being well sung. The fugal Christe was well articulated and the tricky modulations in the second Kyrie came off very well. The Gloriaís arresting opening contrasted suitably with the (well-balanced) solos in the Laudamus te and the choir made the best of some innocuous chords at the end.

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In the Gratias agimus bass soloist Harry Thatcher seemed to be so rather more a baritone than a bass, though this is a small point of criticism in what was overall a very pleasing movement. The Domine Deus was so operatic that it was almost comic (though the restrained Englishness of at least those around your scribe meant that there was no obvious laughter). The tenorís operatic style was absolutely perfect for this music; perhaps we must accept it as a religious offering and not assume that everything in church must assume a fake solemnity.

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The extended solos in the Qui tollis and the Quoniam were again beautifully sung, though it would be interesting to know if much of the detail of the solo lines reached the rear of St Martinís. The bass was certainly more focussed, though I could not hear his tís. After a long rest the choir clearly relished the Cum Sanctus following its arresting opening. The double fugue was incisive, rhythmic and obviously a lot of fun to sing.

In the Credo, the opening contrasts were well delineated and the alternation between choir and soloists was very effective. After Sarah Vivian's beautifully soaring soprano solo Crucifixus, the first note of the Et resurrexit was the only bump this reviewer noticed, but all was well very quickly. The soft passages came across well and the loud sections were very secure and confident. Best of all however was the Et vitam double fugue which once again demonstrated Rossiniís contrapuntal skill and which was very well sung.

The somewhat curious Prelude religieux was an opportunity for the two excellent accompanists, pianist Marion Lea and organist Ben Lewis Smith, to make solo contributions and as usual they did not disappoint. In particular the harmonium interlude was beautifully played. The small electronic instrument that the church possesses is surprisingly effective and it proved its worth here.

The big contrasts of the Sanctus were suitably dramatic and though there was the odd difficulty with intonation, the conclusion was solid. Perhaps after the possible operatic excesses noted earlier, Rossini might have felt that a more sacred style was needed, which is what we got in the O salutaris, again beautifully sung by Sarah Vivian. Mezzo soprano Beth Moxon gave us a tender Agnus Dei well supported by the simple but effective choral interjections of Dona nobis as this developed into very interesting dialogue.

The slightly odd ending demonstrates the dilemma of concert masses. The Agnus Dei can, or should, end quietly, but as Salieri memorably says in the factional drama Amadeus, you have to give the audience a loud bang at the end so that they know when it is finished. But musings of this sort must not be allowed to detract from the fact that this performance was a very successful presentation of a work that should be better known. Julian Collings and the Society have done it again!

Peter Lutton was Organist and Assistant Director of Music at St Johnís School, Leatherhead, from 1976 to 2010, and has been Organist and Choirmaster at St Nicolas, Great Bookham, since 2003.
Photographs by Clive Richardson.

Epsom Choral Society is a Registered Charity, number 273757