Review of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Concert – 25th March 2023
From reading the Chairman’s preface in the handsomely produced programme booklet one could detect something of the frustration and sense of impoverishment for the performing arts caused by the restrictions in force during lockdown – an acute sense of deprivation for singers and players, the musical equivalent of ‘nil by mouth’, though in this case with reference to ‘giving out’ rather than ’taking in’! With such restrictions now at least a fainter memory, and with an eye to rebuilding audiences to pre-pandemic levels, what better way than to present in the case of Saturday’s concert a programme of pieces by composers with magnetic box-office attraction – Handel, Mozart and Mendelssohn.
With the coronation of King Charles III just a few weeks away the appropriateness of Handel’s anthem Zadok the Priest could scarcely be questioned. Loved equally by performers and listeners alike, this majestic piece received an exhilarating performance. Even though one knows what the gently pulsating orchestral introduction will culminate in, there is always an element of surprise at the power that is unleashed by the choir’s initial D major chord – a truly spine-tingling moment that Handel, consummate dramatist that he was, knew it would be. After the stateliness of the opening section, the dance-like And all the people rejoiced was suitably buoyant, before the return to 4/4 time for the final section with its challenging runs of semiquavers. Despite the over-generous resonance of Tonbridge School chapel for large-scale choral and orchestral music – the acoustic blurs the edges of passages requiring crisp articulation – the extended ‘Amen’ runs in lower and upper voices were well-delivered with no loss of ensemble.
A move from cathedral to opera house focused the spotlight on an orchestra-only item, the overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Here is music that contrasts solemnity with frivolity, the former depicted by the distinctive timbre of three trombones, the latter by skittish writing for the strings alternating with suave legato lines for the woodwinds, all delivered on Saturday evening with commendable stylishness.
A return to church brought us a possibly less familiar piece, a setting of Psalm 42 by Mendelssohn, judged by Schubert, so it is claimed, to have been the highest point that Mendelssohn reached as a composer for the church. The original scoring specifies orchestra, choir, a soprano soloist, as well as two tenor and two bass soloists. The five soloists form a quintet for the sixth movement, but as the male soloists are not used elsewhere it makes perfect sense to avoid hiring them for a section that can be perfectly well delivered, as on this occasion, by the gentlemen of the chorus. (No doubt the treasurer agrees!) The choir’s singing was at all times assured and confident, be it in the well-shaped legato lines of the opening movement or the rousing, impassioned and oft repeated cries of Trust thou in God which feature so prominently in movements four and seven. The jewel in the crown, however, was the contribution of soprano soloist Anna Cavaliero, whose beautifully focused and pure tone admirably suited her solo lines, not least in For my soul thirsteth for God. Further enhancement in this movement was provided by the excellent oboe playing of Jo Briers. In conclusion, were this setting of Psalm 42 unfamiliar beforehand to some of the audience, this evening’s performance will doubtless have created a thirst to hear it again.
So to the principal work of the evening, Mozart’s great Mass in C minor. Even if performed, as here, without one of the numerous available conjectural completions, this piece represents an ambitious undertaking for any choir on account of its length, complexity, and considerable demands on singers and players alike. That all the performers were more than equal to the task was very evident. The choir showed itself as master of the different styles of writing it was called upon to execute, be it sustained chordal passages or nimble agility in semiquaver runs of near operatic calibre. Particularly impressive were two sections: the Qui tollis, written in a more old-fashioned style, with consistent dotted rhythms in the orchestra supporting the vocal lines above, and the Cum sancto spiritu passage in Jesu Christe. This latter section is a veritable tour de force not only of compositional technique but also of execution. With much doubling of the choral parts by the orchestra, not least the men’s voices by the trombones, the need for precise ensemble is paramount, and the fact that this requirement was more than amply met testifies to painstaking rehearsal by conductor Naomi Butcher, as well as the adoption of a judicious tempo in a building whose acoustic I deem to be difficult to manage. The various movements involving the soloists only added to our pleasure: after hearing sopranos Rebecca Milford and Anna Cavaliero singing splendidly on their own it was lovely to hear their voices blending in the duet setting of Domine Deus, the sinuous, chromatic melodic line for the first violins contrasting strongly with the wide acrobatic leaps required of the voices. The two sopranos were joined by tenor Richard Robbins for the trio setting of Quoniam, with its lighter texture providing a contrasting sonority. Only in the Benedictus movement were we treated to the full quartet to which baritone Jonathan Eyres added an appropriate gravitas, before, by dint of skillful thematic joinery, the choral reprise of Osanna in excelsis made an exhilarating conclusion to this feast of music-making.