Saint-Saens Symphony No 3

This was my first Philharmonic concert and the first time I’d been inside Tonbridge School Chapel since 1971 – two memorable experiences in one evening. The chapel is kinder to quieter music: in both the choral and orchestral halves of this concert the climaxes could sound aggressive.

We began with a sequence of twelve short choral pieces covering four centuries – too many pieces to make a coherent programme without some strong underpinning theme, however attractive each one may be.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Monteverdi sung by such a large choir, but the conductor’s clear beat and well-signalled entries ensured firm rhythms. Variety of texture was thrillingly provided by the brass quartet’s toccata from the organ loft and later by Helen Page and Hattie Serpis, also aloft, singing like angels – or perhaps cherubs, with their boyishly pure vibrato-less tone.

The commonly repeated opinion that there were no great British composers between Purcell and Elgar, or even Purcell and Britten, seems to belong to the old mountain peaks and foothills view of art and music history and also to disparage many composers of considerable merit – including several Wesleys, and at least two more composers featured in this evening’s choral selection.

But next, Purcell. A choir of this size rather softens the contours of a work such as Hear my Prayer. However, when we reached Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the programmed music was at last growing into the clothes provided. Ellen Thomas sang the solo with a beautiful treble-like voice (another cherub). The most usual excerpt from Brahms’ Requiem followed, with organ accompaniment.

After so many short, relatively subdued pieces, the rousing start of Parry’s I was glad was particularly welcome. The pieces by Charles Wood and Patrick Hadley were new to me and might have made a stronger impression in a different programme. The Evening Hymn came as quite a shock to someone used to singing this every term-time Sunday for four years in its chaste Gregorian form. Henry Balfour Gardiner’s setting (whose opening notes recall the Gregorian) was rich gourmet fare on which to end the first course of the evening.

What a grand classical composer Saint-Saƫns was, and how wonderfully he used a full Romantic orchestra in his Third Symphony! He was full of classical wit too in the multifarious ways he introduces his germinating theme. In the middle of Part I he lets us hear how this apparently Mendelssohnian scherzo theme is a close relation (or near miss) of the famous Gregorian Dies Irae. In the Adagio another mutant sneaks in slyly on pizzicato basses. And at the end, what Maestoso grandeur in the apotheosis of the theme!

I had looked through the score earlier in the week and thought if the Philharmonic Orchestra can play this they must be good. They did and they were. There are always things it’s not fair to expect from anything less than a fully professional orchestra: the building of long spans, total cohesion at moments of high speed and high activity (the Presto sections in Part II were a bit wild, but nonetheless exciting). And fugal entries are merciless exposers of anything less than perfect intonation. But all this was as nothing given the glorious climax as organ and orchestra resounded from opposite ends of the chapel at the end of a wonderful summer’s evening.

Michael Dowrey