From plainsong to tempest. Thames Philharmonic Choir’s thrilling drama ‘n’ bass concert.

March 12, 2019

A beautiful pair of contrasting works constituted the programme for the Thames Philharmonic Choir’s recent captivating concert at All Saints’ Kingston upon Thames.  The splendidly restored medieval parish church provided the perfect setting for Duruflé’s deeply religious Requiem (Op.9).  Steeped in the French Catholic tradition – the composer had a distinguished career as assistant organist at Notre Dame and in other leading churches – the work has a haunting beauty which was brought out to full effect under the masterful baton of the choir’s Artistic Director, John Bate.  The work is often compared to the music of his illustrious forerunner, Fauré, but it contains unmistakable shades of that other great French composer, Debussy, as well as references back to the plainsong of early medieval music. 

 

The delicate balance struck between the different forces – the organ, the elements of the choir, the chamber ensemble of the Thames Festival Orchestra and the two outstanding soloists – was exquisite.  Space was created for the subtleties of the music, allowing the aural landscape to unfold organically, enchantingly.  The celebrated organist Stephen Disley punctuated the work with sublime phrases.  Mezzo soprano Yvonne Howard contributed a relatively brief but heart-rending Pie Jesu (“Holy Lord Jesus, grant them rest”) and bass baritone Edward Grint was magnificently commanding with his contributions to Domine Jesu Christe and the powerful Libera me.  It was spine-tingling.  The magnificent, unrestrained drama of this passage was in complete contrast to most of the rest of the work, the peaks, valleys and plains of which were negotiated with very fine and effective attention to detail by the 80-strong choir. 

 

In contrast to the mainly reflective Requiem, the second half of the concert burst into the hallowed heights of All Saints’ on full throttle.  Haydn’s Nelson Mass was a late work and one of his greatest, produced during his very fruitful autumn years.  In the opening Kyrie, drums, trumpets and a fanfare heralded the strings and the combined might of the vocal forces before the soprano soloist, the hugely impressive Katherine Crompton, performed her opening vocal tour de force. She was thrilling, and the combined voices of the choir responded in kind.

The Gloria continued in a similar vein except that this time it was the extraordinary bass baritone of Edward Grint which provided the key ingredient in the pyrotechnics, notably in the Qui tollis section, in which Grint’s bass baritone plunged deeply to express the more reflective and plaintive mood.  He was joined in some glorious duet passages by the tenor soloist, the highly talented Mark Dobell, and they in turn were joined by the female soloists, who together with the other musical forces brought the Gloria to an ecstatic conclusion. 

 

The central Et incarnatus passage of the Credo, which followed the Gloria, provided more sombre but lovely moments of reverence with the choral forces sensitively accompanying the exquisite voices of mezzo Yvonne Howard and soprano Katherine Crompton whilst the male soloists exercised finely judged restraint.  Not for long though, as they came back in force in the concluding part of the Credo, which also ended exuberantly.

 

The very brief Sanctus embraced both the meditative and the dramatic elements of the work before introducing the Benedictus, in which the soprano magnificently dominated the exchanges between the soloists and the chorus, preparing the way for the exciting climax bearing signs of the “new” music being pioneered by Beethoven during Haydn’s later years. 

 

The concluding Agnus Dei opened with an exquisite, melancholic contribution from the mezzo before the gradual introduction of the other voices leading to the excitement of the Mass’s concluding peaks.

 

The Nelson Mass was not conceived by Haydn as a work of homage to his friend, but it became indissolubly linked to the great man following his naval victories in the Napoleonic wars, which helped enormously in liberating continental Europe from the French Empire.  The Thames Philharmonic Choir’s recent performance of the work also represented a triumph for the Choir’s long-serving (since 1964) Artistic Director, John Bate, who retires at the end of the current season.  His love for the Austro-German musical canon is well established and it was fitting that this, his last major performance conducting the Choir, the superb Thames Festival Orchestra under their fine leader Nandor Szederkényi and the illustrious soloists – not forgetting the gifted organist Stephen Disley, should highlight Haydn’s masterful work bearing the name of Britain’s greatest admiral. 

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