Holst: Cloud Messenger

Finzi: For St.Cecilia

Elgar: Enigma Variations

Holst: The Cloud Messenger

The concert given on Saturday 19th November in Tonbridge School Chapel by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Choir and Orchestra was a very special occasion.  It had long been the ambition of their conductor, Matthew Willis, to perform Gustav Holst’s The Cloud Messenger, a work that has rarely been heard since its first performances in 1913 and the years immediately following.  So special was this concert, that the audience was joined by Holst scholar, Raymond Head, former Trustee of the Holst Birthplace Museum, who contributed an informative programme note and admitted that even he had never heard the work in a live performance.

Holst’s large-scale choral work, although being based on a love poem by the 8th century Hindu poet, Kalidasa, was, in fact, a work typical of the English choral tradition of the early 20th century, albeit with exotic elements in the harmony and orchestration.  Certainly a challenge for both singers and orchestra, partly because this would have been the first time that any of them had performed the work, nevertheless this was a performance of enormous conviction and interpretative insight.  Matthew Willis is to be congratulated for introducing us to this colourful and original music and for guiding us through it with such assurance.  The choir sang with great expressive power, a large dynamic range and subtlety of phrasing. Holst had scored the work for a large orchestra, but so skilfully, that the choir and orchestra were seen as equal, but complementary, partners in this fascinating sound world.  Clarity was paramount.  The wonderful vocal warmth and expressive range of mezzo-soprano soloist, Linda Finnie, was heard to full effect in her dark-hued solos.

The concert began with Gerald Finzi’s Ceremonial Ode: For St Cecilia (appropriate as St Cecilia’s Day is November 22nd).  Although another great English choral work with echoes of Parry, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, this music is of a different nature to the economically-textured Cloud Messenger.  Finzi’s music was lavishly scored, and at times the choir and soloist found it difficult to compete with the powerful orchestral writing.  A setting of a charming poem to St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, by Edmund Blunden, a better balance of forces would have helped us appreciate the imaginative word setting.  Aspects of the problem are the generous acoustics and unhelpful positioning of singers and players in the Chapel.  There is no real solution to this, but the audience must trade off the beauty of the building and the warm acoustic environment with clarity of sound.

This issue of clear lines of sight and balance of sound was also noticeable in the Elgar Enigma Variations.  If only the woodwind could have elevated on tiered staging so that their subtle and beautiful playing could have been fully appreciated.  The Philharmonic Orchestra  goes from strength to strength, and it is easy to judge it as a professional rather than an amateur orchestra.

Matthew Willis showed himself a master of control of the structure and variety of this piece, holding together its many contrasting moods, and leading to its wonderful conclusion.  Even though not large in number, the strings played with warmth and breadth of tone, and there was much fine solo playing, ranging from cello to brass, not forgetting the extravagant timpani solo.  This was a splendid achievement from our local musical friends, ably led by Susan Skone James.

An evening which presents music, familiar and unfamiliar, at such a high standard is something we should value highly in our town.  Well done, Tonbridge musicians.

Roger Evernden