Tonbridge Philharmonic’s decision to celebrate the Mozart anniversary year with an all-Mozart programme was a courageous one, for Mozart’s music, so familiar and easy on the ear is notoriously difficult – the slightest imperfections can be all too obvious. For the orchestra especially the challenge was huge. There were to be no easy options in a programme which included the Overture to the Magic Flute and the Haffner Symphony as well as the great Mass in C Minor.
The concert opened with the Magic Flute, instantly demonstrating just how difficult this music can be, and how cruel to the strings where the slightest wobble in ensemble is instantly apparent. That said, conductor Robin Morrish drove the piece through with a keen sense of drama. It was followed by the well-known motet, Ave Verum Corpus. Given that the Chorus were singing this from cold, (this short but exquisite piece being their one contribution to the first half) the pitch could easily have sagged, but not a bit of it: This was a musical high point of the evening, beautifully played and sung, and phrased to perfection.
There was also much to enjoy in the Haffner Symphony: crisp, tight playing in the strings (led superbly as ever by Penelope Howard) in the first movement, and dramatic energy in the last. However Mozart is not all Stürm und Drang – perhaps a more relaxed tempo in the Menuetto and Trio would have allowed more space for the lightness and delicacy of this music to come through?
One of the most tantalising questions in all music relates to the missing movements of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. The ravishing Et incarnatus leaves the listener poised awaiting an equally moving Crucifixus, and then…? Tonbridge Philharmonic’s interesting solution to this perennial problem was to complete the work by supplying the missing sections from the Coronation Mass in C, K317. For this listener at least, the change in mood which followed served best to reinforce what an astonishingly powerful work the C Minor Mass is – Mozart at the absolute height of his creative powers.
The operatic nature of the work demands a highly skilled solo quartet consisting of, unusually, two sopranos, tenor and bass. Bibi Heal carried off Mozart’s coloratura with ease; Emma Tring has a darker, potentially richer voice, still light in weight, which will no doubt develop in the future. Although it was a pity they were not better matched for the spectacular duet Domine Deus, both gave fine performances, as did the tenor, Hugh Hetherington, (especially in the Quoniam trio) and bass, Stefan Hölstrom.
The Philharmonic’s chorus has grown in size and confidence over the years, and in spite of being heavily weighted towards the top (at least 75 ladies!) produced a warm, well-balanced sound, singing with excellent attack and discipline in the opening Kyrie and in the big climaxes of the Gloria and Credo. There were dramatic subito pianos in the Qui tollis and the balance with the orchestra was excellent. Might one suggest, however, that the orchestra be invited to play more delicately when accompanying softer passages, to allow the chorus to sing more lyrically? But that is a minor point – this was a programme which would challenge a top professional chorus and orchestra, and it is immensely to the credit of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and its conductor, Robin Morrish, that the large and appreciative audience in Tonbridge School Chapel was treated to such a fine evening of music-making.