Programmes and Reviews – 103rd Season (2006-7)

Fauré at Vale Royal

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“Tour de France”

Celebrating the routing of the Tour de France  through Tunbridge Wells.

7th July 2007

For their summer season concert the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society performed two choral works by Gabriel Fauré – the Requiem and the Cantique de Jean Racine. They added for good measure a group of three of the composer’s songs which, together with other short items, made an attractive filling to the musical sandwich on offer. All this took place in the Vale Royal Methodist Church under the Society’s conductor Richard Jenkinson, and in the presence of the Deputy Mayor.

Fauré was only nineteen and still a student when he wrote the Cantique de Jean Racine. It is a remarkably mature and tranquil work which has become increasingly popular in recent years, although opportunities to hear it live remain comparatively few and far between. The first thing that struck me about the Choral Society’s performance was that the gentlemen appear to have increased in number and as a result they were not, for once, overwhelmed by the ladies. Even the tenors could be clearly heard, which is of such importance in works that depend so much on harmonic development and texture. A pleasing balance between the parts was supported by a sensitive organ continuo from Michael Bacon who, among his many other duties, is organist at the church of King Charles the Martyr (see postcript below) in Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Then came the sandwich filling. First, two well-known songs – Martini’s Plaisir d’Amour and Berceuse de Jocelyn – sung by Roland Miller, who has an agreeable light-brown baritone voice, well sustained throughout a considerable range. He was followed by the soprano Sarah Lingard in a group of three Fauré songs, including Aprés un rêve. Lovely, beautifully rounded and authentically French performances impressively accompanied by Anthony Zerpa-Falcon, who made his personal contribution to the programme not by playing French pieces as advertised, but with an account of Chopin’s formidable Ballade No.1. The brilliance of the music and of his performance shone through the behaviour of the instrument and the wayward acoustics of the church itself.

Many different arrangements, by no means all of them authorised by the composer, exist of the principal work in the RTWCS Fauré programme, the Requiem. The last time I heard this sublime music was in a live, full-blooded orchestral performance in the huge church of Saint Eustace (the one nobody talks about) at Les Halles in Paris, where the first performance of Grande messe des morts by Berlioz took place. It is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar works – one completely right for its setting: the other definitely not.

So it was with eager anticipation, as they say, that I looked forward to hearing one of the stripped down versions in which the voices and the organ would be heard to best advantage. And, of course, that solo violin in the Sanctus which, on this occasion, was played by George Clifford. I realise that it is risky for an Englishman to criticize a Frenchman – and Fauré of all people – on a matter of musical taste, but in an otherwise chaste and austere setting what purpose does this decoration serve? However you answer this question there is at least one point on which I am quite clear: it should be played, as the composer intended, as a wispy, ethereal descant suggesting an angelic chorus, and not as though it were part of a violin concerto for chorus and orchestra.

Once again the soprano and baritone soloists shone in their performances. Sarah Lingard’s Pie Jesu was pure and beautifully controlled, while Roland Millar sang Libera Me with great clarity of diction and conviction. With very few exceptions the choral entrances and exits were well managed by Richard Jenkinson, and it is clear that he shares to the full John Rutter’s view that Fauré’s masterpiece should be treated as a liturgical work for modest forces to perform in church, which is exactly how the composer conceived it.

I couldn’t agree more.

© Robert Hardcastle

Elgar at Rochester – with the Bach Choir of Wiesbaden

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The Kingdom

Rochester Cathedral – 27th May 2007

In Rochester Cathedral on the Sunday of Pentecost the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society, and their friends from the Bach Choir of the twin town of Wiesbaden, gave a performance of The Kingdom by Sir Edward Elgar to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The combined choir of more than 150 voices was supported by the Bernadi Symphony Orchestra, led by Andrew Bernadi. The four soloists were Sally Harrison (soprano), Kim-Marie Woodhouse (mezzo-soprano), Jon English (tenor) and, at short notice, Christopher Foster (baritone). The oratorio was conducted by the Choral Society’s musical director Richard Jenkinson, who not only kept his formidable forces together but deployed them to great effect.

It was a memorable occasion for many reasons, not the least of which was the powerful impact made by the orchestra in the opening bars of the Prelude, and by the entry of the choir a little later. The whole of the ancient cathedral reverberated, it seemed, with the glory of Elgar at his majestic best, with the richness of his harmonies, those purposeful forward-moving motifs so brilliantly orchestrated, and just enough of the drooping cadences of Gerontius to remind us of what he had earlier achieved as a choral composer.

The soloists worked well together, playing their parts to take the narrative forward at all the crucial moments. There were times when they had to defend themselves against the sheer volume of the orchestra and the cavernous sound quality of the cathedral itself. These losses of balance cannot be laid at the door of the performers or of the conductor: they are – almost without fail – the fault of the composer, and Elgar is by no means alone in this regard.

The show-stopper in the second part of the work – The Sun Goeth Down – illustrates the point. Here Elgar brings his orchestra under much stricter control: the lightness and delicacy of the orchestration allow the soprano voice to move centre stage and to blossom and to flower most beautifully. For this solo passage Sally Harrison, as Mary, seized her opportunity with relish, and who can blame her?

Even the most ardent admirer will admit that for all its power and conviction, The Kingdom is a flawed work. It is scarcely a coincidence that after it was first performed Elgar abandoned his plan for a successor work, and composed no more religious music other than short motets for special occasions. ‘There is no point in writing music’, he notes in his diary, ‘that nobody wants to hear’.

Nevertheless, this last oratorio certainly deserves to be heard, especially when it is performed to the impressive standards achieved by Richard Jenkinson and his Anglo-German band of musicians. A further performance is to be given later this year at the Lutherkirche in Wiesbaden on Saturday 24 November.

© Robert Hardcastle

Organ recital by Richard Jenkinson

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Vale Royal Church – 21st April 2007

Fund raising concert

No review available – click on image to view programme.

Music for Palm Sunday and Good Friday

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“Procession of Palms” by Malcolm Williamson
“The Crucifixion” by John Stainer

Saturday 24 March 2007 – Vale Royal Methodist Church

This was their second concert of the day, the afternoon performance having been given at St Mary’s Church in Goudhurst.

There was a near-capacity audience at Vale Royal for this concert of seasonal sacred music. The two contrasting works presented took us from the jubilant procession into Jerusalem through to Jesus’ last hours on earth and his Crucifixion.

The concert opened with Malcolm Williamson’s “Procession of Palms”, written over 40 years ago but still sounding fresh and vibrant. The familiar words of two hymns “Ride on! Ride on in majesty!” and “All glory, laud and honour” are given distinctly different treatment from the hymn tunes normally associated with them. Williamson’s melodies are no less effective and show that 20th century composers are perfectly capable of writing tunes!

“Ride on!” is accompanied by a largely independent organ part, which begins pianissimo, with a rhythmic pattern which is repeated throughout but whose harmonies become more dissonant and dynamics gradually increase finally reaching fortissimo – one is reminded of Ravel’s Bolero! The choir clearly relished this music and, despite the earlier performance, their voices sounded fresh and unforced. Their gaze was fixed on their conductor, Richard Jenkinson, whose control was admirable.

For “All glory” the choir and organ are reunited and some unexpected modulations add to the excitement! The work has an unexpected ending with the upper voices singing a hushed “O Saviour of the world” where the musical line is rather angular (reminding us that this is a 20th century composer) followed by a melodious 2-part setting of the Benedictus and finally an exultant Hosanna.

John Stainer’s “The Crucifixion” made for a complete contrast. This work is often dismissed as Victorian sentimentality. Yet it has stood the test of time with choirs and choral societies providing performances year on year and audiences clearly appreciate this work. That several of the hymns are well established also speaks volumes.

Written for choir with tenor and bass soloists, this performance was unusual in that the bass solos were shared. The soloists were drawn from the choral society ranks and Richard Jenkinson took the unusual step of conducting their solos. The earlier performance must have taken its toll on their voices; their delivery lacked sufficient projection and their upper ranges were strained at times. The lack of projection prevented the organist from employing more appropriate registrations, especially in “King ever glorious” which was a great pity.

The noisy wind supply to the organ also detracted from the quieter solos – the church was never properly quiet – clearly those who maintain the organ need to sort out the wind leakages as a top priority! By contrast, the choirs’ projection was just right throughout and, in “Fling wide the gates!” and “The Appeal of the Crucified”, the organ was able to blaze away without drowning the voices. Great stuff! The choir was, in fact, in fine form. The intonation, diction and blend were all highly commendable. Ends of phrases were very neat and the diminuendos were very skilfully done – most choirs are good at crescendos, but diminuendos are usually either non- existent or executed too rapidly.

The tenors and basses came into their own for the short sections of 4-part harmony; in so many performances by church choirs these passages can be very ineffective and, in some cases, downright embarrassing – but not here. Bravo!

Richard Jenkinson, their conductor had clearly rehearsed his forces exceptionally well; all eyes were on him and he communicated what he wanted very effectively. The concert was accompanied by talented young organist, Alistair Curtis. His contribution added enormously to the overall performance. The playing was crisp and rhythmic and his choice of registrations was sensitive with one or two very minor exceptions.

© Paul Jeffery

Carols at St. Barnabas

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10th December 2006

No review available

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Tunbridge Wells Civic Concert

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Handel – Coronation Anthems & Bach – Magnificat

Assembly Hall Tunbridge Wells, 12th November 2006

The concert given on 12 November in the Assembly Hall by the Tunbridge Wells Choral Society, at the start of its 103rd season, formed part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Tunbridge Wells. The programme presented an interesting juxtaposition of choral music in honour of a secular monarch, George II, and Jesus, the man born to be king. As such, the music, respectively by Handel and Bach, contrasted celebration from a universal point of view and a personal one.

The almost-100-strong choir was on good form under the direction of its regular conductor, Richard Jenkinson, giving a splendid opening blast of vibrant tone in Handel´s Zadok the Priest. The unsympathetic acoustic of the Assembly Hall did not help the more exposed passages where vocal counterpoint and individual entries were prevalent. Handel wrote for a more spacious and grandiose setting, and the need for this was apparent throughout the four Coronation Anthems. Throughout the choral items, the orchestra (ably and positively led by Jane Gomm) responded well and played with accuracy and insight. The challenging brass parts were played with great panache, led by Jeremy Clack. The continuo playing showed flair and precision, but the player deserved a better instrument than the digital keyboard provided. The Bach Magnificat allowed plenty of opportunity for the large audience to enjoy solo playing. The one solo orchestral piece was Bach´s Suite no 3 in D major – a good choice because its orchestration and key complemented the Magnificat. This well-known piece was played accurately, but lacked careful shaping of phrases and dynamics, and parts were, frankly, rather dull. More rehearsal time would permit more perceptive interpretations of these orchestral pieces included in basically choral programmes. This was apparent in the accompaniments to the choral works as well.

The Bach Magnificat is much more personal and expressive than the Handel anthems, and the four soloists came into their own here. They were Nicola-Jane Kemp (soprano), Louise Armit (mezzo-soprano), Julian Alexander Smith (tenor) and Adrian Powter (baritone). They exhibited fine tone and sensitive expression in both solo items and when in duet, and they communicated well with the audience. This was not easy because they were positioned on the stage between choir and orchestra. This was far from ideal, because they needed to ‘speak’ directly with the audience in these small-scale movements. The Magnificat consists of a series of short sections, and continuity is of the essence if the flow of the music is to work. The logistics of staging did not facilitate this. Similarly the choir had to respond quickly to new moods, dynamics and textures, and this did not always happen in this technically challenging music.

Despite the problems associated with lack of rehearsal when all the forces come together on the day and the consequent broad-brush approach when expressive details were called for, the concert was well received by the audience and the choir clearly enjoyed the experience. That amateurs and professionals can work so well together producing challenging repertoire in such effective ways is a great treasure of the British musical scene. May the Tunbridge Wells Choral Society continue this great work well into its second century. Certainly Handel would not say ´God rot Tunbridge Wells …and all its damned sawing fiddlers´ if he were here today, as he is reported to have said in 1759.

© Roger Evernden