Nigel Williams

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St Nicolas is by no means easy. Britten employs simple and familiar tunes and sets them among a variety of harmonic and rhythmical oddities that leave the listener wondering why the performers should find it so difficult. This listener knows, having struggled to learn pieces by Britten, including this one.

In the audience was someone who has known the piece as long as anyone. Canon Adrian Esdaile offered the church's usual welcome: the customary "someone's left his lights on, here are the fire exits and there are the loos, and please turn the right way after collecting your interval drink". Then he showed his score from the original commission, and let on that as a boy at Lancing College in 1948, he had sung in the performance it was composed for. That drew an appreciative murmur from the audience. The Choral Society would be singing St Nicolas to someone that sang it for Britten.

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The stage was well set. The audience was provided with beautifully produced tickets and programmes, decorated with an icon of Nicolas saving those in peril on the sea that was a perfect match for the music. The many singers, dressed in stark black, took their seats quickly and smartly, and the first half began with I Was Glad. The orchestral score asks for rather more than the economical forces in St Nicolas, so instead we had an organ accompaniment from Peter Jaekel. He and conductor Julian Collings gauged their changes of tempo adeptly between sections to keep up the piece's momentum. I'm pleased to report that everyone, and I mean everyone, was watching the conductor for the first sentence. Some singers, and they know who they are, kept that up for the whole concert. Standing in blocks by voice made it hard to get much sense of antiphony in the double-choir passages. Everyone sang the semi-chorus, just a bit quieter, but everyone knew this music deeply. The trickier entries came in bang on time and the climactic high notes on 'plenteousness' were nicely middled.

I noted that a couple of other items were simplified slightly. Having sung too many Tavener drones myself, I could agree with assigning the held F in Song for Athene to the organ. The rather beefy stop chosen for the purpose served only to show what a hushed pianissimo the tenors reached at the conclusion. I've since learnt that basses were singing the held F drone, but I could not hear them for the organ. Sorry, basses!

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In Howells' Like as the Hart, a whole section took the solo soprano line. This too was pleasingly familiar, with carefully shaped phrases and the only difficulty from having to count strange numbers of beats at the end of phrases. The altos kept their discipline through some very long silences. My thanks to all that kept up the tension during the final organ chords, which number among my favourite choral rests.

Victoria Waller led on Nonsuch School Chamber Choir to sing Karl Jenkins' Adiemus. The singers clearly enjoy her leadership. They performed with a snap and attention that made even nonsense words sound clear and found plenty of musical shape and variety in what is quite a limited score. Then the first half closed with Blest Pair of Sirens, a familar comfort blanket of a piece, whose contrasts between chordal, contrapuntal and unison, legato phrases and sudden accents came very naturally to the Choral Society.

Duly warmed up, it remained to sing St Nicolas. A lot of this cantata was written as a vehicle for Peter Pears. With a tenor of the quality of John Findon, it was always going to be a spirited and stirring performance. The percussion section interpreted Britten's lavish orchestrations at times as if they were the only performers on stage, but Findon was nevertheless able to carry without ever sounding forced. The Nonsuch Chamber Choir brought their focused sense of rhythm to the upper voices' sections.

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Four trebles from the Unicorn Singers made a thoroughly professional job of parts that have dated a bit in performance. Zack Colton's young Nicolas showed exemplary refined intonation before Findon replied with a masterclass in how to sound final consonants. How much easier it is to get words across fortissimo! Sam Alexander, Oliver Alexander and Oscar Wort timed their arrival well to celebrate their return to life with confident Alleluias. Theirs was a brief role but one that fans of this cantata watch out for.

As for the Choral Society, where Britten gave them tunes, they relished them. For example, telling Nicolas that, as a bishop, he should dress up in full ecclesiastical finery, had a togetherness and focus that must be especially tricky when singing so spread out. At times they struggled to compete with the full orchestra, which may have been more down to the timpanist than the choir

Over strings alone in The stories that we tell they could settle into an easy harmony, showing quite how many good voices belong to this choir. They delivered a mysterious Nunc Dimittis and a compelling descant to All people that on earth do dwell.

Some of tonight's repertoire I have reviewed before. Looking back over my past comments, I became aware that I had heard the Choral Society singing better. Qualities I admired in the Nonsuch Chamber Choir have been evident in the Choral Society too, whereas this time there were more ragged corners, of the sort that Leith Hill judges will notice. Plenty of singers in the Song for Athene kept their pitch up to match the organ all the way through a phrase. Plenty of singers counted the right number of crotchets at the ends of phrases in Like as the Hart, even where Howells deliberately staggered them. Plenty knew the value of watching the conductor, especially when Britten's rhythm grew complex. But it is a lot more impressive when a whole choir does it. There were even cases, most obvious in the fugues, of singers getting behind and resolutely singing every note late rather than jumping back onto the beat. If every member remembers to work at those small but obvious details, daring to look at the conductor instead of fearing to forget a note, then Epsom Choral Society have the potential to surpass themselves

Nigel Williams is a bass in St Martin's Church Choir, Epsom, and married to Helen, their regular liturgical composer. He wrote on Vaughan Williams for the school book What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know. He tweets as @ChoralCanossa.]

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