The Old Testament prophet’s story was lavishly told with five soloists, an orchestra of strings, brass, woodwind, timpani and organ, and a chorus of several dozen well-drilled and responsive singers under conductor Julian Collings.
Your reviewer had attended their open rehearsal early in the term, when Marion Lea was supplying
single-handedly (well, two-handedly) all the orchestra’s notes on the piano and the chorus were learning how their parts fitted together. In the time since, Epsom Choral Society turned early sketches into a complete painting. An “iron” sky could be coloured by high woodwind chords, limping string phrases could suggest Elijah’s weary departure for the wilderness, and ringing timpani and organ chords underpinned a song of pious thanksgiving for the end of a famine. Felix Mendelssohn knew how to deploy an orchestra and the best way to appreciate it was to hear it live.
The Choral Society’s task was to project their sound from the tiered staging behind the orchestra and
unfold a series of choruses with very different challenges. In chordal passages they needed to keep in tune with each other, whereas in complex contrapuntal turn-taking movements the challenge was also keep up with the tempo and find their entries in among all the other notes. Elijah is also a big sing. It needs a lot of volume to deliver its full dramatic grandeur. They deliberately avoided over-singing the afternoon rehearsal, so there was still something in the tank even by the final two choruses, delivering whirring scale passages as Elijah went by a whirlwind to heaven. Those words ended very loud but began with some dramatic rapid whispering. Mendelssohn’s style relishes the idea of light “shining forth”. In one of those contrapuntal passages, the tenors, though fewer in number, still had that luminous quality more than two hours into the concert.
Before then, we had heard ample demonstrations of prowess from elsewhere in the choir. Not quite as outnumbered as the tenors, basses had a difficult task to make their entries clear when competing with organ, timpani and low strings but they were up to it.
Elijah is very much an English piece, written in the tradition of German composers working this side of the Channel. Mendelssohn was keen to make his lines fit the words of his English translator, William Bartholomew, and Choral Society made sure we heard them. You don’t often hear the word “laveth” in song but we heard it on Saturday. The most German-sounding moment came when the Angels’ trio “Lift thine eyes to the mountains” was sung by the choir sopranos and altos, instantly painting a scene of alpine villagers, with a lightness of touch that belied words about a foot that shall not be moved. There were not so many opportunities to show off delicacy and beauty of singing tone. They took that one, and the serene full-choir chorus that followed, “He, watching over Israel, slumbers not nor sleeps.” I missed “He that shall endure to the end”, cut for reasons of timing, which I think would have showed them off well.
Having an orchestra, the English Sinfonietta, and five soloists was a luxury. Treble Brandon McGuinness, taught singing at Epsom College by Christopher Goldsack, sang a resolute succession of top Gs while the orchestration changed underneath him. It is worth hearing those notes while they last. I have heard John Findon (tenor), Elizabeth Findon (soprano) and Judy Brown (mezzo) before and fully understand why they regularly get invited back. Judy Brown got the show-stopping movement, “O Rest in the Lord”. She kept it simple, with a voice both unaffected and affecting, offering half reassurance, half lullaby. They also gave us some delectable ensemble singing in the soprano-mezzo duet “Zion spreadeth her hands” and quartet “Cast thy burden upon the Lord”.
By far the largest role went to bass James Geidt as the prophet himself. Accustomed to operatic
performance, he learnt much of his part by heart, so when singing he could look to the audience or the other performers. He brought a voice that was rich and treacly and looked the part with a luxuriant Old-Testament beard. His acting skills led his character from pompous confidence through fear and weariness to final moments of joy.
There was plenty of joy. Epsom Choral Society had learnt their parts well. They sang of rescue,
perseverance and redemption, themes that were joyful enough, but they could also take pleasure in
performing to high standard.
In the midst of the ongoing war in Ukraine with all its tragic consequences, this Centenary concert, celebrating 100 years of Epsom Choral Society, was an uplifting experience. Music is the perennial force that brings light to the darkest of times.
After the better part of two years lost to Covid, many choral societies have found themselves struggling to re-group, some with insufficient numbers to re-start. Not so with Epsom Choral Society. Not only did its intrepid members continue whenever and wherever possible with their rehearsals - many acquiring new-found technical skills for online sessions - they even managed to navigate around the government's isolation guidelines by rehearsing outdoors in members' gardens and, on occasion, in a public car park. Such exploits were duly recorded and celebrated by the local press. This determination to battle on where others might have given up shows their truly admirable enthusiasm and resourcefulness.
How better then than to start the evening with Vivaldi's Gloria - a deservedly popular war-horse among choral societies. This joyful hymn of praise is divided into twelve short and contrasting sections, with emotions ranging from festive brilliance to solemn prayerfulness and many shades in between.
ECS confronted head-on the dramatic opening movement with full-throated fervour, followed in the second with a complete change of mood and a beautifully sustained crescendo. Such discernible dynamic contrasts are always a sign of excellent choral singing. In addition, the various fugal movements offer challenging and perhaps even hair-raising moments. The final Cum Sancto Spiritu is a glorious affirmation of Vivaldi's religious faith.
The two outstanding sopranos, Lisa Swayne and Helen Semple, with their soaring voices and crystal clear diction, blended harmoniously in Laudamus te as well as in their other interjections. Mezzo Carolyn Holt was commandingly impressive in her solo movement Qui sedes. Little wonder that she is party to the universally praised Peter Grimes currently playing at Covent Garden. Peter Jaekal provided colourful orchestral support from the organ.
Special commissions are a rare luxury for choral societies, not merely because of the monies involved. The second half of the concert was made up of no fewer than three works commissioned by or written for ECS over Final rehearsal, 19 March the past 13 years or so.
2009 was the 250th anniversary of Handel's death. The choice of I know that my redeemer liveth from his Messiah was a logical one in that year to celebrate the event with a special commission. One can only imagine the shadow of Handel bearing heavily down upon any composer asked to re-tread the path that the great man had trod.
Cecilia McDowall is a seasoned choral composer. True to form, she cast aside any hint of Handel's aria and delivered a work brimming with her customary calling card - an aura of simplicity that belies a detailed and considered structure. The choir brought a luminous quality to this appealing and accessible anthem, which was accompanied by Peter Jaekel on the piano - a sensitive 8 partnership that never intruded but provided discreet underlying support. It is vintage McDowall and a fitting 21st century tribute to Handel.
ECS is blessed in having its own resident composer, Adrian Payne, masquerading as choir member. This, his third composition for the choir, featured in the 2013 Leith Hill Music Festival as well as in subsequent concerts. I hid my love was a poem written by the romantic poet, John Clare, a few lines of which were spotted by the composer on a plaque in Kew Gardens. As Payne describes: "the words gripped me with their atmosphere, haunting meaning and air of mystery - elements that I wanted to try to capture musically."
This is a gentle song, sensitively sung and faithfully reflecting the mood of the poem. Structurally, Payne describes using "close chordings, often including the fourth of the chord set against the third". This harmonic device pervades throughout and perfectly illustrates the eternal, unresolved longing of 'hidden love'.
O Joyful Soul - what a wonderful title for a work commissioned to celebrate a past member, Cecil Wiltshire (1920-2015) who sang with ECS for 67 years! The description of Cecil - 'his devout Christian faith, his love of countryside and cricket, and his quiet and unassuming Englishness' - made me wish that I had known him too.
Jonathan Willcocks, composer and Festival Conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival, was commissioned in 2016. The well crafted result - a composition with five movements - has a neat and cogent structure. The first and last movements are settings of psalms, the central movement is an in memoriam piece, and the second and Soloist presentation, O Joyful Soul fourth are pastoral settings of poems by Pope (1688-1744) and Edward Lucas (1863-1938).
Both the bookend movements make use of the same thematic and rhythmic materials, giving audible coherence to the work. Imaginative use of the 7/8 metre interspersed with 4/4 propels and energises. It must have been great fun learning to sing this pulsating music. The introduction of a soprano solo in the lyrical second and fourth movements adds a gentle and picturesque flavour to reflect Cecil's love of nature.
Apparently, the central movement - a setting of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) - was sung by members of St Martin's church choir at Cecil's funeral. The quiet humility of the hymn-like setting must have presented a truly moving moment during the service. This very English-sounding work is a worthy tribute to a much loved and loyal member of the choir. I think Cecil would have been very pleased.
[Our guest reviewer Lynda Chang is a local pianist with special interest in opera and chamber music.]
Epsom Choral Society's 2020 vintage concert was all ready for consumption when the spread of Covid turned into a national lockdown and the programme had to be quickly put back into the bottle. When it emerged again in November 2021, it was like a second fermentation. Having learnt this programme a year and a half ago, they had that extra time to know and love the music and make it their own. Add an extra dose of rehearsal and what emerged tonight had added fizz, like the sparkling wines of the Surrey Hills. It was the happy sound of a choir singing music they knew well and keen to share its detail with an attentive audience.
It was also the Saturday after bonfire night. With the doors and windows wisely wide open, a few pieces were punctuated by the sound not of champagne corks popping but of extraneous fireworks, as people that couldn't get tickets in tonight's packed St Martin's Church sought other entertainment. It didn't seem to matter. The music was captivating and the interruptions brief, so there was little break in the concentration.
First off was J.S. Bach's motet Lobet den Herrn. It was the one piece that wasn't in the plans for last year. Jon Pullinger's guiding programme notes acknowledge the possibility that it may be by someone else. Enough eminent Bach scholars have been convinced of the attribution and for long enough that there is scant reason to challenge it. Choral Society's approach followed their best Bach style. In this setting of Psalm 117, fugues outnumber the verses, so singers took care to articulate the contrapuntal lines and ensure all the words were distinct. Singing in German added an extra challenge to a programme otherwise in Latin. On reaching the Alleluia section, confidence grew as words became straightforward and all the attention could go into the notes. This is far from easy music but long experience of singing Bach Passions at Leith Hill saw them through.
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater followed, in an arrangement by Desmond Ratcliffe that allocated several movements to the chorus, sharing the tunes between women's and men's voices. Choral Society knew it well, especially the familiar Latin text that was beautifully clear throughout. They could command a variety of tempi and moods, from the genteel dance of 'O quam tollis', the fast and contrapuntal 'Fac ut ardeat' or the well-supported long-breathed phrases of the opening 'Stabat mater dolorosa' to the skippy, canonic 'Inflammatus'. I loved how long held chords were never uniform but were invested with shape throughout.
In between was a succession of showcase movements for the soloists. If I needed reminding of how much we've been deprived of live performance these last eighteen months, mezzo Beth Moxon and sopranos Miranda Heldt and Eleanor Pennell-Briggs made the point handsomely. In duet, the sopranos timed their ornaments so that trills shook at the same speed. I never heard that in any virtual performance. When coming in second, Eleanor Pennell-Briggs had a gift for matching timbre so that harmony seemed to emerge as from a single voice. Beth Moxon supplied the pinot meunier to the recipe. 'Eia mater' contained long lines with just a single repeated pitch, which she delivered with a covered and complex timbre, whereas in 'Quae moerebat' she sprang into syncopated vocal dance. Miranda Heldt excelled at bringing out the Italianate sound of the text. Her ornaments in 'Vidit suum' were woven discreetly into a hushed but sustained cantabile line, like gemstones on a fine chain.
A feature of the whole concert was Choral Society's customary discipline. It would be easy to lose momentum by fuss or fidgeting between movements. Everyone knew where to be and how to get there. Every movement followed neatly and engagingly from the one before, with never a pause to give a starting note or shuffle the music. My congratulations to the concert managers and their eye for detail.
The English Sinfonietta can have had few chances to play together in recent months but they maintained a chamber-style unanimity of expression. Positioning between chorus and soloists gave just the right balance between vocal and instrumental. Facing a set of responsive and agile instrumentalists may have encouraged Julian Collings, conducting, to take some movements faster than in earlier rehearsals. It was a risk worth taking as everyone knew the piece well enough to go with him.
After the interval, Dixit Dominus asked for a degree more bravura and drama. Soloists were allowed brief declamations. When we heard Joe Doody only twice and Jon Stainsby just for a few bars, it felt a bit profligate not to ask them to sing again, like ordering a magnum when you only have two small glasses. By the time we reached the concluding 'Gloria Patri', many voices were still fully fuelled and firing but some gave a hint that this was a long piece at the end of a long day. No criticism of the conductor, whose afternoon rehearsal was brief, focused and encouraging, but a possible consequence of the long, enforced near-silence. I can personally vouch that baroque music gets easier at baroque pitch, whereas Choral Society were up with the modern instruments tonight.
Choral Society clearly knew this piece very well. People kept looking up at Julian and smiling, and why not, when finally given the chance to perform a piece with confidence on this scale? They were properly dramatic. They sang in a manner close to pizzicato at the start, they sounded pretty angry in 'iuravit Dominus' and they built the tension up inexorably through 'tu es sacerdos’, with chords that stayed supported and dramatic for their full length. The bloodthirsty 'Conquassabit capita' contained confident consonants as if they made tongue-twisters a routine feature of rehearsals. The success of Dixit Dominus can depend on the last two movements and once again everyone knew what to do. Tenors and basses who had previous been supplying incisive fugal entries now stayed seated to provide a delicate colour wash behind the translucent duet of Miranda Heldt and Eleanor Pennell-Briggs. It's a mystifying, opaque text. We were treated to serene refreshment after the previous belligerence. With poised, alternating vocal entries over perpetual quavers from the strings, they never allowed the brook to run dry.
Then finally is ‘Gloria Patri’. Too fast to read the score, it's time to trust to memory, watch the conductor and enjoy using whatever voice you have left. I might have preferred to let the soloists join in. Their absence made the point that Choral Society knew it well enough to manage without them. Julian Collings wasn't slowing down for anyone. Time after time, the words 'Et in secula seculorum' came over with the clarity and confidence that the choir would keep going all night if you asked them to. They didn't have to. They finished as well together as they started and could stand enjoying the applause. They had sung separately into their phones. They had sung outside and in a car park. Now after too long away, they were back in front of the audience they deserved. After a twice fermented concert, they could open the champagne.
I was invited to review the performance of Josef Haydn's The Creation at St Andrew's Church, Cheam, on Saturday November 16 2019. This has long been one of my favourite oratorios and I attended with great anticipation. The performance had some beautiful and stirring moments. The three soloists sang beautifully, and their ensemble singing was very secure. The soprano, Lisa Swayne, sang with a lovely tone, but with a tendency to crescendo towards her high notes whatever the written dynamic. She suffered from the choice of tempi for her main arias, as did the other soloists. I feel she would have preferred a slower tempo for her main aria With Verdure Clad, as with most of her other solos.The tenor, Joseph Doody, again sang beautifully, mainly in the recitatives and ensembles. In Native Worth, his major aria, was very nicely performed.
Gavin Horsley, the bass soloist, gave a particularly strong performance. His rendition of Straight Opening Her Fertile Womb was a delight. Its depiction of the lion, the stag, the horse, cattle etc. and ending with a wondrous low D for the sinuous worm, although not in the score, was splendid. His singing both as soloist and in ensemble was outstanding.
Especially beautiful was the duet Graceful Consort with Lisa, and the duet By Thee With Bliss, which was accompanied by the chorus, achieved a lovely piano sound. This was a high spot of the evening for me.The English Sinfonietta kept up with the fast speeds very well. Some of the introductions suffered from confusion over starting tempi. There was much beautiful playing, especially from the woodwind section.
The chorus sang very well throughout, when they were not struggling to keep up. The tempi chosen for the major choruses such as The Heavens Are Telling and the final Sing The Lord Ye Voices All, which combined the soloists and the chorus, was far too fast and the clarity and nobility of these, and most of the other choruses in the work, were lost. However, the great moment of "and there was LIGHT" was wonderfully achieved with a true pianissimo before, and a thunderous C major chord on the word LIGHT. Truly memorable.
Inspiring sight of so many keen (and familiar) faces eager to perform in imposing space. After noting slightly untidy start in orchestra, much impressed by power and style of tenor soloist Elgan Llyr Thomas. Choir entries good, balanced and well co-ordinated, despite distance between front and rear of platform. Fresh sound of semi-chorus.
Bass soloist Jon Stainsby equally impressive and communicative – wish Elgar had given singer in this part more to do. Effort from tenor to avoid swamping by orchestra seems draining, but fortunately find later that soloist has something left for second half. Occasional balance problems as orchestra rather loud at times - hard to judge exactly, as so near front, but pp ought to mean as soft as possible – horns please note. Incredible detail in score obvious once again – all sorts of detail meticulously marked, as always with Elgar. Performance so far adjudged to have shown choir making every effort to carry out precise directions – sensitive entries in Kyrie, though tutti slightly fluffed, and dynamic markings carefully observed in "Rescue him".
Second half – blown away for second time, by mezzo soprano soloist’s power, artistry and quality of tone. As one (of many) marvelling over years at classic performances of one Janet Baker, feel that here is someone who can help us move on. Clear diction, strong projection and tender communication with tenor soloist show Judy Brown has great future.Having unashamed low-church Protestant background, not convinced by Catholic near-obsession with purgatory and supposed trials of Christian soul in after-life – unsurprised to learn from informative programme that early last century, some Anglican cathedrals did not allow performance, or attempted to tone down words; perhaps Blake’s line about "mind-forged manacles" in back of some minds here. However, feel it churlish to deny sheer conviction of faith shown first in Elgar’s music and then clearly revealed time and again in this performance, especially in chorus of demons - suitably dramatic and turbulent. Try to imagine early audience reaction in perhaps more genteel days.
Though expecting it, thrilled by climax of show – explosive choir entry on "Praise" as requested by composer, followed by magnificent choral gallop well sung; powerful words set to powerful music with desired effect emphatically achieved, despite inevitable blurring of some detail in large-building acoustic. Later minor grumble: semi-chorus weak in later section. However, no doubting heavenly bliss as depicted in final pages of Angel’s Farewell. Deplore some over-enthusiastic audience member starting applause insensitively early – intended atmospheric ending lost too soon.
Overall, performance of great grandeur and real sensitivity, reflecting/justifying work’s veneration both here and abroad, almost continually since first successful performance.In conclusion, ponder (not for first time) how to introduce dramatic power of large-scale English (and other) choral music to young people deprived of such exposure in today’s all-pervasive popular music and electronic machinery culture. Try to retain hope that good live music will always survive. Commend Julian Collings, Epsom Choral Society and Barnes Choir for effort in wonderful attempt to keep this happening.
What a treat to be presented with not one, but four, contemporary choral classics in a single concert! Whilst ostensibly a gamble, the 250-strong audience was amply rewarded with wonderfully studied performances that made the journey there and back through wild winds and biblical floods entirely worthwhile.
The concert opened with the main work of the evening – Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, conceived for an all male choir and first performed as such in Chichester in 1965. Set throughout in Hebrew (and the first of this evening’s linguistic challenges for the choir), the setting of Old Testament texts in three movements embodies Bernstein’s affirmation of faith, encompassing joy, humility and prayer.
So we began with a resounding "joyful noise unto the Lord", an exhilarating (and frightening for the singers) introduction where no quarter was given, least of all to the stalwart tenors having to launch straight into a series of parallel sevenths. Bravo – it was not for the faint hearted. Those persistent and discordant intervals, together with the movement’s 7/4 metre, perhaps reflected the numerical significance of the number seven within the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Alexander Gillan, chorister from Guildford Cathedral, was our treble soloist for the second movement producing exactly the innocence of tone envisaged by Bernstein in this simple, tender and haunting song of the young shepherd David. The juxtaposition of tranquil solos at the beginning and end of the movement with a brief moment of ferocious tenors and basses in between is possibly a reminder of mankind’s eternal struggle between conflict and faith.
Peter Jaekel gave an impassioned organ interlude to open the third movement. There was much luminous unison singing of the main motif – a fervent devotional offering that came across with utter conviction from the choir. The work ended with the singers on a unison note – Bernstein’s prayer for the unity of mankind, perchance. It was an inspiring start to the evening’s programme.
Keziah Thomas’s harp solos were a perfect sorbet, dividing the choral items in each half of the programme. Having provided an integral accompaniment to the Bernstein, she turned out to be also an excellent verbal communicator, explaining the back-story to each work with fluency and charm, and amply demonstrating the under-estimated versatility of her instrument.
Crossing Waves celebrated the astounding achievements of Ros Savage – the first and only woman (to date) to row solo across the Big Three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. Andy Scott, the composer, was lucky to have such an accomplished exponent in Kezia who drew an astonishing range of colours and effects for this three-movement work in charting those intrepid journeys.
In the second half, Kezia chose music by two contemporary female composers – Allie Robertson and Deborah Henson Conant. The former’s Grey demonstrated one technique over many chords – an example of Scottish minimalism à la Phillip Glass! Conant’s Baroque Flamenco was indeed, in Kezia’s words, a show stopper – encompassing strumming, drumming and a plethora of effects. It is a great pity that many harpists never seem to venture beyond the "prettiness" of the instrument. What we saw and heard from Kezia was a consummate and virtuosic professional at work.
James Bower – percussionist extraordinaire – dazzled us throughout the evening with his mastery of a multiplicity of percussion instruments, whether it was bells, drums of various sizes, cymbals, gong or wind chimes – all of which added colour to the evening’s spectrum of sound.
So back to the choir. Before the interval, we heard Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes, a cycle of four songs all on the theme of night, providing ECS with linguistic displays of French and Spanish – a walk in the park, perhaps, after the Hebrew.
The American Lauridsen specialises in choral writing that evokes atmospheric or mystical effects. The settings of Rilke for the bookend songs are just that - deep and emotional, and the choir produced radiant singing that was beautiful and heart-felt. The French pronunciation was admirable.
The unaccompanied Pablo Neruda achieved a spiritual quality with its hints of Gregorian and medieval overtones – the whole being dressed unmistakably in a lyrical contemporary idiom. The 80-plus-strong choir produced a beautifully well-balanced and nuanced sound.
It was brave of Lauridsen to follow in the footsteps of Barber’s phenomenally successful setting (in 1940) of the same poem by James Agee, Sure on this Shining Night. Perhaps inspired by the words, both versions are characterised by an eloquent simplicity. Again, diction was admirable and there was a moving quality particularly from the tenors and basses with the whole choir producing a beautiful soundscape with wonderful control of dynamic changes. Marion Lea, long-standing accompanist for ECS, made a significant contribution in helping to set the mood of this song with her superbly sensitive playing.
Our second half began with Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst,written when the composer was in his early twenties. As a youngster with a short but chequered past, Whitacre produced a work of youthful exuberance and invention that was nevertheless solidly based on the classical tradition. The title Cloudburst is symbolic of a spiritual respect for the power of water and supposedly the joyous profundity of rebirth – all good New Age thinking. And along the way, he threw in all manner of percussive effects including chimes, bells, cymbals – really, everything but the kitchen sink.
ECS met the challenges of verbal effects, physical movements, jagged intervals, dissonant clusters, general tonal mish-mash and massive choral sonorities head on. It was fun. The build-up of the storm from a quiet beginning in minor key to the climactic outburst of sopranos in the major key – not the most subtle convention - was unerringly handled by choir and conductor. There are shades of Tavener here and wisps of a Buddhist mysticism that continues to infect some composers today.
Not content with showing off their language skills, ECS hereby offered highly effective finger clicking to portray the first drops of rain through a tropical storm to the eventual clearing of the spirit and the sky.
And finally, Chilcott’s Songs and Cries of London Town – a happy, light hearted setting of five texts, evoking a variety of impressions of London from across the past 500 years. As ever, the choir took Chilcott’s trademark tricky rhythms and unexpected modulations in its stride. The whole set made for attractive music of variety, with lively cross rhythms in fast movements and delicate lyricism in the slow ones. The performance was in turn exciting, contemplative and happy. The third movement is a vibrant take on that 18th century rhyme Oranges and Lemons. Not surprisingly, it became so popular that it is published separately under the title London Bells. Marion Lea and Peter Jaekel joined forces enthusiastically at the piano to give a highly enjoyable performance.
All in all, it was a stimulating evening of modern choral music that bodes well for the future. The programme notes were excellent as ever, and it was gratifying to see such a large audience there for the slightly off-beat fare. A choir that can cope with these four challenging and demanding works, whilst at the same time preparing for its annual Leith Hill Musical Festival programme is, quite simply, awesome! Clarity of diction is a given with ECS and makes for an abiding memory to take home, along with fine singing that drew on all the earthy colourings of the works.
Bravo and thank you, ECS, once again.
This year’s summer concert was a little more traditional in style and format than we have become used to, but was none the less interesting for that. The focus was largely on music that can be and sometimes is performed liturgically, ie during an actual service, though it is rare for the Requiem by Duruflé to be so presented. Your scribe was lucky enough to hear it this way on All Souls’ Day in King’s College, Cambridge in university days. Likewise, the equally good choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, led the way in the in-service performance of masses such as the Vierne in the college chapel from the 1960s onwards, under the great George Guest. Again, we music students made a point of being there on Sunday mornings – these large-scale liturgical performances were a revelation.
But enough of ancient history. In the here and now, ECS brought us music once again suited to the large space in St Martin’s Church. The Mass by Louis Vierne, the blind organist of Notre Dame, Paris, was originally for two organs (what luxury!) but realistically a solo organ version was also produced and is more often used for obvious practical reasons. The instrument at St Martin’s is suitably matched to the scale of music and building, with organist Peter Jaekel making good use of it. The choral textures are mostly uncomplicatedly chordal and there was great clarity in the choir’s presentation.
The confident start in the opening Kyrie showed in the well-contrasted dynamics and the good tenor line, as well as in the careful balance between choir and organ. This sense of direction continued in the Gloria where the basses gave a good account of themselves and there was a good steady build-up in the Qui Sedes. A difficult restart was very well executed. In the Sanctus, some entries sounded somewhat less secure but the climax was very exciting, with the Hosannas sounding particularly happy. Unaccompanied sections of the Benedictus came off well and the slow part was very atmospheric. Once again, the build-up in the Hosanna was very good.
The Agnus Dei contains some more subtle part-writing which came across well particularly in the chromatic passages. Tuning slipped a little in the C sharp major section but the ending was very well balanced and musically effective. Certainly, such a mass as this is very suitable for a choir like ECS and it was a very good choice as a concert opener.
The Regent Sinfonia’s rendering of the Capriol Suite was an apt selection – English music to lead us into the next course. They played it with great style and accuracy, apart from a few less secure moments in the Pavane. This was made up for with the lovely lilt in the Tordion, very good ensemble in the Bransles, real warmth and contrasting delicacy in the Pieds-en-l’airand a wonderful dance rhythm and sense of energy in the final movement, Mattachins. Many moments in this suite, particularly in Pieds-en-l’air, make clear Peter Warlock’s fine understanding and adept handling of earlier English styles, and it was obvious that everyone enjoyed this very much.
So to O Joyful Soul, the music commissioned by the Society in memory of much-loved and very long-standing former choir member Cecil Wiltshire and a further venture for the choir in the world of the commissioning of new music. In this, the world premiere, the words of two psalms, poetry by Pope and Lucas and a prayer by Cranmer were very suitable choices for composer Jonathan Willcocks to set. They reflect Cecil’s dedication to the life of the church and his enjoyment of all things English. The composer chose to use a musical style that is basically traditional and tonal, but with nods in a modern direction. The seven/eight rhythms of the music for the outer movements were snappy and effective and choir and orchestra delivered them crisply and with confidence. The harp and trumpets were well used at appropriate points and gave sufficient variety to the orchestral accompaniment without the need for a large band. The dreamy nature of the second movement, Happy the Man, was achieved through the gently floating soprano solo, beautifully sung by Lisa Swayne. If the first choral entry sounded a little insecure, their accompaniment of the solo line was very well handled. The sotto voce ending with soloist floating on top was a delight.
The more churchlike style of the third movement, Remember not, Lord, our Offences, reminded us of Cecil’s contribution as a choir member and as a Reader at St Martin’s for so long. It was simple but heartfelt, even when the orchestra were occasionally a little loud. Balance within the choir however was always good and the right effect was achieved. In the fourth movement, the text was rather more flowery, and if this should be a problem for some, it might helpful to remember that we often sing words such as this in works like Elgar’s songs From the Bavarian Highlands. The text here is almost a foreigner’s idealistic view of this sceptered isle, but it was set sensitively, with attention given to the clarity of the words in performance by both composer and choir. Your scribe particularly appreciated the excellent way the alto line was sung at the words ‘how would I love to see your face again’ each time it came. In one section the choir accompaniment was a little loud for the soloist, and I wondered why there was any need for the first violin to double the soloist near the final bars. These are, however, minor points – overall the performance was effective and moving.
It can therefore be honestly said that a fit and proper tribute to a special human being has been well paid in the careful crafting and tender performance of this intriguing new work of art.
Duruflé’s Requiem of 1947 is a twentieth century landmark for all who appreciate French religious music. It goes further than Fauré’s excellent example in using the actual plainsongs of the Requiem Mass but it does not hesitate to move ahead in places in terms of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic expression, though without resorting to the extreme dissonance of much of last century’s composition. Therefore, it was a fitting climax to this splendid concert and an appropriate piece (if one may say it once again) in such a large space – something which it should always have.
The work has various scorings: organ alone, organ with strings, trumpets, and timpani and the original, full orchestra with organ. (Duruflé’s own recording of this last makes for interesting listening). The second, which we heard, is the one, for practical reasons, most often done. We were treated to an enjoyable performance on a par with the location, but there were some problems of balance which were never fully solved. Unfortunately, the sixteen-foot flue stops of the pedal organ are all, bar one, very loud and so quite often there was too much organ bass. However the choir put across the expressive nature of this heartfelt music, even if the singer in his or her place on the platform might not have been sure how well the musical line would be projected to the listener. It is the lot of the performer to be unable to hear exactly what an audience actually receives. So, there has to be trust and confidence in what the conductor asks for in terms of louds and softs, balance between the parts and in the details of diction. The overall result was effective, notwithstanding the comments above.
The imbalance referred to above was more or less the only blot on the Introit’s dreamy opening, though an alto entry could have been clearer. The Kyrie needs everyone’s heads to be up which they mostly were (trust the beat!) as the choral lines are very intricate. It built up well and the tempo change was smooth and confident. The eventual climax was impressive, but could have used even more volume from the choir. The decrescendo to the atmospheric ending was very well executed.
The Domine Jesu Christe had a beautifully sung alto opening followed by a suitably forceful Libera eas. The demanding animato section came across as very confident – not the easiest thing to bring off. The contrasting passage with the floating soprano line, Sed signifer, was very good along with the lovely paired voices in Quam olim Abrahae. Finally, the excellent baritone Edmund Saddington had his chance and his lovely tone was worth waiting for. The Quam olim at the end could perhaps have had more breath support, or is it to do with the slightly higher than concert pitch of the organ? No matter – a very powerful movement delivered well.
Problems of balance disappeared almost completely in the beautifully ethereal Sanctus, other than for a brief period in the middle. The rhapsodic nature of this lovely movement one might wish to go on for ever. In the Pie Jesu, soloist Lisa Swayne showed a wonderful ability to switch from the full soprano role she had filled earlier in the concert to a rich mezzo-soprano style. The demanding low notes at the end of this musical cry from the heart had an enviable richness and control and the whole movement was very movingly sung and played.
Matters of balance were better in the Agnus Dei– once again, well done, altos and basses! The final few bars were very well delivered. For your reviewer, the tempo of the Lux aeterna was a little fast but otherwise this was a confident and accurate performance of some potentially awkward moments. The organ balance here was very good and the final Quia pius esfrom the choir was excellent.
The Libera me reached the climaxes necessary for such impassioned music, though the organ did not give both baritone soloist and the choir’s basses much chance in their solo lines. On the other hand, the full Dies illa did benefit from the sheer power of the instrument. The sopranos’ solo was beautifully sung and so I hope it will be felt that any criticism is small, compared with the overall effect of this performance. The somewhat out-of-balance (in terms of length) final In paradisum recovered from a shaky first note to be suitably uplifting and atmospheric, with all matters of balance very well handled.
It was a pleasure to hear the choir again and I am very grateful for the chance both to hear all this splendid music and to write about it. Once again, Julian Collings and the committee are to be commended for the society’s interesting and varied programming.
Israel in Egypt asks a lot of its chorus. I counted twenty-eight choruses, nineteen in eight parts. On this night, Epsom Choral Society had the measure of it, performing with a confidence that explained how this work, in its Victorian heyday, enjoyed greater popularity even than Messiah.
In his programme notes, Jon Pullinger promised us the full panoply. The delivery never flagged. Somewhat under-used soprano Josephine Goddard began the final Sing ye to the Lord in full war cry but neither orchestra nor chorus, who in rehearsal and concert had been on stage for close to four hours by then, refused to be outdone. Choral Society’s sopranos could still carry a consistently high phrase and, unlike the horse and his rider, refused to be drowned by timpani and trombones.
It was Handel’s choice not to give Josephine Goddard more to do. Her single duet, The Lord is my strength and my song, sung with Catriona Hewitson, showed that she could add lyricism and sensitive tone-matching to the martial drama of the finale. Her duet partner was given an air to herself: Thou didst blow with the wind, which was brief but virtuoso. Ranging from an upper B flat to a lower E flat and full of seventh and octave leaps, she projected it with minimal vibrato and never a hint that this music might be difficult.
Beth Moxon had a little more to do, including introducing the first chorus. With only a few chances to impress, it would be tempting to overdo the volume. Instead, she measured And the children of Israel sighed with delicacy. Choral Society picked up on that. First the altos and sopranos, then sopranos and tenors, then the whole choir sang their entries with the same spirit: the restraint and refinement made for a moment of true beauty. Her duet with tenor Dominic Bevan and her solo Thou shalt bring them in were sung with flexible delicacy. If Handel’s line demanded tricky rhythmic skips before a long, held note, it sounded perfectly natural, with an engaging shape to each longer note.
Other movements were introduced by Dominic Bevan. I would gladly have heard more of his recitative, which was guided always by the text with the music just forming naturally around it. Once or twice the orchestra, cellos especially, felt as if it might choose a different tempo from the soloists. When the words were "I will pursue, I will overtake", that may have been intentional. In any case, ensemble gets harder when soloists have to face away from the conductor.
The duet The Lord is a man of war between basses Kieran Rayner (left) and Timothy Edlin (right) showed the Regent Sinfonia at their best. Despite small stylistic differences – Edlin with a shade more vibrato – they blended well, even synchronizing their rolled "r’s" in the word "drowned" and matching their athletic descending runs over an octave or more. During the singers’ rests, the orchestra shone. Thirds between upper strings harmonized perfectly in neatly etched phrases. The bassoons and oboes picked up on the vocal phrases and matched the singers for style.
I love timpani. The Sinfonia’s player had brought a variety of sticks, so that hailstones could land with a sharp report or the Lord’s triumph could enjoy regal plumpness. Occasionally the timpani managed to steady a fugue that looked as if it might start to separate but such moments were few. Playing both organ and harpsichord was Marion Lea, Choral Society’s consummate accompanist. Always aware of what would help the singers, she kept the organ erring on the side of audible or spread a harpsichord arpeggio to remind everyone of their entry.
However, the real stars of Israel in Egyptwere the chorus. Time after time, Handel demanded exposed fugal entries, or eight-part chords direct from the previous movement, or long stretches near the top of the register. Time after time Choral Society were equal to the demands. Seven divisi tenors deserve a special mention, managing always to be heard without ever sounding forced. Altos seized their chance to show they could do fast semiquavers in With the blast of thy nostrils. They demonstrated dainty quick upbeats in He sent a thick darkness, which the other parts then emulated. At The depths have covered them, basses dropped solidly to the final "stone", displaying a compass of two whole octaves. At the defining point, He rebuked the Red Sea, the full chorus was challenged to sing the movement from memory: eight parts, whole phrases without orchestra, deserving the audience’s full attention.
Once or twice, a semiquaver run felt slightly faster than comfortable. Only once did the ensemble drift apart for a few bars after one part had sung a slow rhythm a bit too slowly. Julian Collings stood a bit straighter, his beat became temporarily four-square and enough key singers were watching and following so that each subsequent entry was back in its rightful place.
These moments were exceptions and came only at the trickiest parts of what is, after all, difficult music. More importantly, the performance never lost its sparkle, its drama or its power. The whole promised panoply of effects that Handel requested was adeptly provided by a chorus that had clearly taken this work to their hearts.
Before Christmas, I was myself expecting to sing Israel in Egypt this term. I belong to a London choir that had it on the programme but had to change plan, possibly because they could not get hold of the scores. If the real reason was that Epsom Choral Society had all the copies going, then I need have no regrets. They were in very good hands.