(as Bill Bryson didn't quite say)

by Lynda Chang

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I have ceased to be surprised that a community choir (no auditions) such as Epsom Choral Society can produce such a consistently high standard of singing. Whatever IS their secret? No one will tell me but this was certainly the case on 12 March 2016 when ECS performed in the vibrant and splendid environment of St Martin’s in Epsom. Indeed it is one of the many joys of life in England – and Bryson would be the first to celebrate the fact - where traditional choral repertoire thrives within small communities up and down the country. And the evening made a fine tribute to Mary Craddock-Jones, a choir member from 1950 to her death early this year.

At this, his impressive debut appearance (2015 Christmas carols excepted) as ECS Musical Director, Julian Collings presented us with choral works from three composers which, whilst familiar, posed totally contrasting stylistic challenges. A team of young guest soloists - Alice Pugh and Fran Kelly (sopranos), Caroline George (contralto), Harry Bagnall (tenor) and Adrian Collister (bass) – added superb colour and vocal diversity. The excellent organist Edward Batting - familiar stalwart at ECS concerts - provided sterling support for two of the evening’s items.

And we were off, launching straight into what might arguably have been the most technically demanding of the three works. Michael Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of Our Time, was begun as World War II broke out. It is a work that explores the theme of man’s inhumanity to man. The periodic interjection of the voices of 19th century American slaves is intended to reach out to an audience beyond the shores of Europe, acting as might a Greek chorus, narrating and reflecting the universal suffering of ordinary people. Their performance as a stand-alone concert item necessarily detracts from their emotional impact at pivotal moments within the oratorio, but creates no less profound a plea for hope within the deepest privation. Performed a cappella, the Five Negro Spirituals demand sustained but impassioned singing from the choir while the soloists provide personal observations.

Steal Away took us immediately into the world of the oppressed. From cold, ECS managed to evoke a haunting backdrop, upon which the soloists could add their comments. Collings drew an impressive dynamic range from the choir, from wonderfully whispered singing in Nobody Knows to the proud defiance of Go down Moses. Pitch perfect at all times (no mean feat even for a professional choir), the five short songs made for a sincere and moving experience at the start of the concert.

Next came Fauré’s Requiem. A perennial favourite, this short work is clothed in the unique harmonic language that is unmistakeably Fauré’s. A complex integration of advanced tonal and medieval modal procedures, this idiom encompasses a sound world of shifting harmonies that describes perfectly the passage of life from the temporal into the spiritual world. It is understated late 19th century romanticism à la française, intensely expressive and a million miles away from the contemporary Germanic romanticism of Liszt and Wagner.

Divided into seven movements, this performance was skilfully supported and immeasurably enhanced by Batting’s sensitive organ accompaniment.

The opening of the Introit is notoriously difficult for any choir. Sustained pianissimo singing with all parts moving chordally, ending in three ppps – Collings certainly had his work cut out here. He kept an admirably tight rein throughout, ensuring unison word endings at all times. The choir successfully negotiated all the hurdles to create a solemn opening statement. The tenors then gently moved us along with firstly the sopranos and then the whole choir responding, building to a vibrant Kyrie that juxtaposed firmly resonant as well as subdued singing

Altos then took the lead in the Offertoire, the part singing seamlessly blending with the tenors and basses. The first of two baritone solos was underlined by alternate bars of major and minor key accompaniment – an ingenious device of Fauré’s to depict the fragility and uncertainty of human life.

By writing the Sanctus in just three parts (sopranos, tenors and basses), perhaps Fauré was trying to depict musically the Holy Trinity. However, the very absence of the altos, (the essential ‘meat in the sandwich’ voice part) until two notes right at the very end of the movement, conveyed a sense of bareness in the choral sound that must have been a deliberate ploy by the composer. In any case, this movement was taken at a beautifully flowing speed, bookended with breathtakingly sustained singing, and a central Hosanna that blasted out glorification of the heavenly Host, without at any stage falling into the raucous. Marvellous.

Special mention is due to Fran Kelly, soprano soloist in the Pie Jesu. Blessed with a clear, ringing voice, Miss Kelly sang simply and from her heart - where others might have been tempted to fuss - and the effect was all the more touching on account of it.

Once again the tenors brought their lyrical long-lined singing to the fore in Agnus Dei, as always, ably supported by the other sections. The lusciousness of the harmonies at Luceat eis was fully realised by the choir and brought attention to the sheer opulence of the score. As an effective compositional device, the end of this movement returned to the very opening of the work, thus signalling the rounding of a circle. The final Luceat eis amply demonstrated the literally luminous quality of the singing.

Libera me was an earlier composition, added later to the work. It fitted perfectly, with the baritone soloist representing the voice of the penitent. The choir then joined in, leading to a very short Dies irae that was no less fearful and frightening for its brevity. The movement ended with the choir repeating the baritone solo in a final submission to the mercy of God.

Fauré could well have drawn a double bar at the end of Libera me. How lucky we are that he didn’t. In paradisum acts like a postscript, a coda to the trials and tribulations of life. This was magically sung by the choir, sublime and devastatingly beautiful.

After the interval, the brilliant and versatile Edward Batting gave a spirited performance of a Prelude & Fugue by Bach. It was good to be reminded of the great man’s legacy which provided the foundation for the bulk of what we regard as traditional classical music today.

The final work in the evening’s programme was Vivaldi’s Gloria - a familiar and favourite warhorse with many choral societies. This was one of two Glorias composed by Vivaldi in the early 1700s when his work at a school for orphans required constant new works for weekly services as well as performances. It was a fascinating time for church music because opera was beginning to flourish. Audiences expected more than traditional plainchant and a cappella polyphony, increasingly demanding more expressive, lively music. Vivaldi ensured that this work - with its twelve short verses, some no longer than a mere phrase - was full of energy, life and contrasting light and shade.

Collings set a cracking pace right from the start - an exuberant instrumental prelude taken up with similar effectiveness by Handel in Zadok the Priest, composed some ten years later. After the frequently hushed restraint of the Tippett and Fauré, it rather felt as if ECS and its new MD were unleashed and allowed to burst forth with gusto. Excellent – just what the doctor ordered.

From here on, we embarked on a journey where each ‘verse’ or section was a departure from the previous, whether in mood, tonality or voice setting. Et in terra pax was peaceful and calm and set in the key of B minor. Whilst relatively straightforward harmonically, the choir produced singing of great sensitivity.

The soprano duet Laudamus te allowed the two sopranos, Alice Pugh and Fran Kelly, to shine. Their voices were beautifully paired and they delivered this paean of praise with joy.

After the shortest interlude, Gratias agimus tibi, came the wonderful fugal fragment, Propter magnam. All entries were crisply delivered and suffused with energy.

Domine Deus featured soprano solo in respectful praise of God the Father. Domine Filii unigenite - a lively fugal section - allowed the choir to show off its vocal dexterity in the handling of the persistent dotted rhythm - bravo.

Domine Deus, Agnus Dei was set for alto solo alternating with full chorus in the manner of a cantor leading the assembled faithful. Qui tollis featured an astonishing diminished seventh in the opening harmonies. This would certainly have raised eyebrows in an audience of the time. Qui sedes again provided contrast with an alto solo sandwiched by a lyrical, tender instrumental interlude.

The penultimate section Quoniam returned to the burst of glory that opened the work. And in the spirit of the time, Cum Sancto Spirito - a rousing fugue - gave us a final blaze of glory with its complex mesh of counterpoint, confidently sung and joyfully received by the very attentive and appreciative audience.

Our journeys home were infused with exhilaration at the excellent blend of sympathetic, poised and heartfelt singing delivered by ECS and Collings - and entirely uplifted by the music that we have come to know and love through the years.

Lynda Chang is a local musician, conductor of local choirs and accompanist for others
[Thanks to Clive Richardson for the photographs]

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