Saint Saens’ “Messe de Requiem”; Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”

A smaller-than-usual audience was royally rewarded in Tonbridge School Chapel on Saturday by a chorus augmented by the return visit of the Arvoly Choir of Le Puy-en-Velay. If any regular supporters were put off by the slightly austere look of the programme presented by Robin Morrish and his entourage then it is “they of little faith” who were the losers.

The programme began with Saint Saens’ Messe de Requiem, in which the opening two movements, “Requiem Aeternam” and “Dies Irae” immediately offered the conductor the opportunity to test the balance of his widely spaced forces in a variety of dynamics and moods.

With organ at one end and large orchestra, chorus and solo quartet at the other, there is always extra pressure on both organist and conductor, but neither of these fine musicians showed any sign of being affected by the extra concentration required of them. Indeed, organist Pamela Colverson, for whom this was the last concert with the society after many years of energetic and expert service as accompanist, achieved a remarkable symmetry of timing and dynamics which kept the whole ensemble tightly together. The only imbalance occurred in the quartet of soloists, where the rich voice of bass-baritone Simon Kirkbride was over-strong, and the sweet sound of Mezzo Harriet Williams a little too soft. This imbalance remained through all the solo quartet sections.

The choir generally maintained its usual high standards throughout the evening in a programme which was full of rewarding , occasionally thrilling music to sing. Some soft entries were a little ragged to start with, but choir and orchestra appeared inspired by the trombone entry in the Dies Irae magnificently played by Richard Turner. From this moment everyone was lifted to a higher plane of involvement and the work moved and excited us by turn.

The Agnus Dei of this work gave us the one haunting melody to take home, and left us anticipating the excitement of the much more familiar Poulenc Gloria which followed. In this work, the only disappointment was the lack of rhythmic bite in the very first Gloria section. This may have been triggered by the only poor tenor / bass chorus lead of the evening, but thereafter the performance showed us its vital and original use of pithy rhythmic motifs, all decorated by the quite magical sound of soprano Patrizia Kwella. No excess of vibrato; perfect intonation; phrasing exactly suited to the different moods required of the piece, and perfectly executed rising octaves in the Domine Deus; these were the features of an outstanding rendering, ably backed by an ever-improving chorus and an orchestra growing in confidence with every movement.

Reading the lengthy lyrics of Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”; a flowery history by Edmund Blunden of music’s “Patronic Goddess” and the composers who have written works devoted to her, I felt sure that the concert should have concluded with the Poulenc. How wrong I was !

Finzi is much loved and admired for his chamber music and songs, but the large orchestra and chorus were all taxed by a fast-moving text and music which showed elements of the great early 20th English composers but which had sufficient individual use of harmony and orchestration to capture the attention of every listener from first chord to last. Truth is, that all earlier shortcomings were immediately dispelled by the vitality and richness of choir and orchestra in a performance which matches the best I have heard from the society. The sopranos and tenors of the choir deserve special mention; sopranos for blend and clarity of sound, and the tenors for richness and enthusiasm which stays under control. Surely this is the best tenor section of all local choirs at present. Perhaps they were inspired by the performance of soloist Hugh Hetherington, who was clearly the icing on a cake of rich ingredients. His was a performance of the highest class. High Bb’s effortlessly produced; excellent diction and audience contact, and at one with all the forces around him. The orchestra was a new beast in this work, too, with Finzi’s orchestration giving taxing but highly-rewarding parts to woodwind and brass; opportunities grasped willingly by these sections. To everyone’s credit; especially to Robin Morrish for his tight control, at no time was either the soloist or the chorus drowned by over-exuberance of the players.

Graham Dibbens