Romsey Abbey

 

6th May 2017
Conductor: John Sutton
Constant Lambert: The Rio Grande
Richard Rodney Bennett: Four Piece Suite For 2 Pianos
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana

The programme of this concert by the Winchester and County Music Festival in Romsey Abbey was always going to be challenging for the combined forces of the Compton and Shawford Festival Choir, the Itchen Valley Choral Society, the Sarisbury Choral Society, and the Pilgrims’ School Chamber Choir. The imaginative programme of three twentieth century works, each to some extent outside the mainstream, was nevertheless appreciated by a large audience.

The main work was Carmina Burana, consisting of settings of twentyfour 13th century texts that had lain unnoticed in a Bavarian monastery for hundreds of years. Sung in Latin and medieval German they were not the religious high-minded texts that one might have expected. Rather they dealt with the basic realities of everyday life – luck, spring, wine, love and sex.

The original orchestration for full orchestra was replaced here by an arrangement for two pianists and five percussionists that had been approved by the composer. These instruments proved more than adequate to support the large choir. John Sutton wisely opted for clarity rather than subtlety in his conducting and by and large succeeded in keeping the whole thing under control. Though there was a tendency for the choir occasionally to run ahead in fast passages, the strong soprano line was crucial in maintaining the positive and lively approach that the work demands. I am sure many in the audience were unaware of the difficulty in bringing together the members of several different choirs who have been rehearsed by different conductors (favouring no doubt slightly different tempi). That the performance as a whole was successful is a credit to the excellent rehearsal direction of the other two conductors, Jane Bryant (Itchen Valley) and Graham Kidd (Sarisbury); and Russell Duplessis who directed the Ragazzi Choir from Pilgrims School.

The soloists were excellent. I was particularly impressed by the musicality of the baritone Andrew de Silva and the effortless range of the soprano Stefanie Read. Richard Thesiger-Pratt’s tenor was notable for its power in the counter tenor range as well as in its normal range. With Jennifer Shell in the Rio Grande, all the soloists were enjoyable and captured the spirit of the music.

Carmina Burana was preceded by two works that illustrated how pupils can reject the influence of their teachers. Although a pupil of Vaughan Williams, who was into folk music and as square as they come, Constant Lambert was in love with jazz and complex latin-american rhythms all of which are found in The Rio Grande. Unfortunately, the Abbey’s resonant acoustic does no favours to such exciting loud and rhythmically complex music and from where I was sitting there was just too much noise to appreciate the music that the choir were clearly enjoying singing.

How different the following work for two pianos, where the brilliance of the music (and the playing) was enhanced by the acoustics. Sir Richard Rodney Bennett is something of an enigma. A pupil of Pierre Boulez, he can write wonderfully expressive chamber music and partsongs, but prefers to play jazz piano and perform the Great American Songbook with such stars as Cleo Laine, Marion Montgomery, and Claire Martin.

His Four Piece Suite brilliantly captures the samba, country blues, ragtime waltz and heavy rock of popular twentieth century music and Gwilym Stacey and Gilly Slot were themselves brilliant in the way they performed it. In addition, playing for nearly two hours and holding together an accompaniment that would normally be played by a full orchestra, was a tour de force for these two musicians and they did not put a foot wrong.

Altogether this was a thoroughly successful and enjoyable evening and a credit to the Winchester and County Music Festival.

Bryn Bridges

Winchester Cathedral

 

13th May 2017
Conductor: Graham Kidd
Felix Mendelssohn: St. Paul

The Winchester and County Music Festival began life in 1921 with the aim of providing an opportunity for smaller choirs to perform more demanding works which they would be unable to undertake with their own resources.

For 2017 singers from Botley, Overton, Twyford and Winchester provided a splendidly large choir to give a powerful performance in Winchester Cathedral of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard oratorio St. Paul.

Written in 1836 and first performed in that year in Dusseldorf and Liverpool and in Birmingham in 1837, the work tells the story of Paul’s persecution of the Christians, his conversion, baptism and ordination, as told in the Acts of the Apostles.

Saturday’s performance provided a successful opportunity to admire Mendelssohn’s elegance, romantic lyricism and superb control of his forces. The chorus responded well to the dramatic numbers as well as the more reflective ones, tackling the more complex contrapuntal music well, relaxing in the chorale numbers which reflect on the story. There was some impressive four part singing by the women’s chorus, and the gentlemen were suitably dramatic when needed.

Three soloists caught the lyrical style of their arias well, tenor Adrian Green and bass Edmund Saddington being particularly effecting in their duet ‘For so hath the Lord’. Soprano Helen Bailey also caught the reflective, flowing melodies of her arias, even if she seemed a little less secure in some of the recitatives.

The Festival Orchestra was led by Elizabeth Flower and provided a secure and at times powerful accompaniment, underpinned by the might of the cathedral’s grand organ. There was some lovely clarinet playing in ‘O Thou, the true and only light’ and a solo cello enchanted us in ‘Be Thou faithful.’

The whole performance was directed with clarity and security by Graham Kidd, and even if Mendelssohn’s later oratorio Elijah of 1846 is the better known and more memorable work, Saturday’s performance of St. Paul was most pleasing and a welcome opportunity to hear a work which is not performed very often these days.

Martin Hall