An inspired piece of programming gave us an intense and thought-provoking evening for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s Easter concert. Both the Nelson Mass of Haydn and the Mozart Requiem were written in 1798. Both were late works, written at a time of personal and political struggle and both begin dramatically in D minor. Haydn himself dubbed this mass ‘Missa in angustiis’ a ‘mass for troubled times’, referring to the threat from Napoleon, who was already advancing in Austria and other parts of Europe. It had a resonance for us today with our concerns for civil unrest in the Arab world, natural disasters on the Pacific Rim and economic downturns across the world.
In troubled times, you turn to your family and a performance from the Philharmonic Society has all the qualities of a family gathering. The performers have been together for some years and have complete faith in their conductor Robin Morrish who never leads them astray. The accomplished soloists return time after time and take evident pleasure in their Tonbridge gigs. The audience is full of familiar faces since parents, partners and children lend enthusiastic support. The occasion, though formal, is relaxed.
Settings of the medieval Latin words of the mass are challenging to perform well and these pieces are no exception. There are frequent changes of mood and tempo in order to bring the words to life. Robin handled this well. For example, he demanded nervous energy from the choir through well-placed accents in the opening Gloria and followed this with sensitive, throbbing heartbeats from the orchestra under Thomas Eaglen’s baritone solo in Qui tollis. In parts, the choir achieved spellbinding soft unisons such as the repeated Miserere (Have mercy on us), but at others lacked real power and precision for the dramatic loud sections. Tightening up on rhythms and the placement of consonants in a large choir is like tuning an engine. When the conductor puts his foot down, the engine will roar into life.
The demands on the soloists too were unusual. No long arias followed by a long sit down in these pieces. All four soloists had to remain fully concentrated throughout as the drama was portrayed through snippets of solos, pair work and the full quartet. Wendy Nieper, Susan Legg, Geraint Hylton and Thomas Eaglen did not disappoint all evening. Individually excellent voices, they also managed to blend well in an acoustic which does not favour clarity or the upper registers. Nowhere was the quartet better displayed than in the Sequentia of the Mozart Requiem, which tells of The Last Judgement. When the ‘trump’ sounded (magnificently performed by trombonist Neil Jones), each voice in turn put its interpretation upon events; the stern and threatening baritone, the excitable tenor, the pragmatic mezzo and the fearful soprano.
The orchestra, led so well by Penny Howard, accompanied throughout with subtlety and style, maintaining the careful balance required for professional and amateur voices.