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JS Bach's Mass in B Minor, March 2016

Mass in B Minor a joyful triumph for Pangbourne choir

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: JS Bach Mass in B Minor, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, on Saturday, March 12

CHARLES Gounod said of JS Bach: "He is a colossus of Rhodes" and Debussy described him as "a benevolent god, to whom musicians should offer a prayer before setting to work, so that they may be preserved from mediocrity".

The Mass in B Minor is an intellectual, emotional and musically technical colossus by the aforesaid colossus. Pangbourne is a small town with a good, large choral society, some 95 singers, and this was not a mediocre performance.

It must be said that PCS achieved a thoroughly workmanlike performance throughout and there were many exciting moments. The vocal and physical stamina required is daunting, even to the most professional of choirs. Yes. there was the odd moment of wayward intonation, the occasional weak entry and the odd moment of feeling of insecurity, but overall this was an extremely creditable performance. The sheer joy of singing in the Gloria, the real breadth and excellent ensemble in the Gratias and intonation in Et Incarnatus, and the sustained grandeur of the Pleni Sunt Coeli are just a few of the many moments of achievement in this rendering of this mighty work.

Canzona, the professional baroque chamber ensemble performing on period instruments, played
competently throughout. There were some exquisite moments, for example the dry, stopped bowing in the Crucifixus, the lifted phrasing of the falling quavers in the first instrumental section and the many soli obbligato players accompanying the vocal soloists.

Hannah Davies, soprano, had a clear, bright tone and a clear sense of enjoyment of singing. William Purefoy, countertenor, had a warm, rounded vocal quality and his rendering of the Agnus Dei had been clearly thought through and was sensitively sung. Nicholas Smith, tenor, sang competently throughout. Henry Neill had a rich, warm tone and a clear understanding of the role of these bass arias and sang with a thoroughly professional attitude. He is still very young and quite rightly did not over-push his lower range at this stage - a very promising voice.

All these forces were admirably held together by the conductor, Roy Raby, who together with the Pangbourne Choral Society must be congratulated on a huge achievement. Bravo!

JULIA ROWNTREE

Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, June 2015

Glittering performance of the first opera

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Dido and Aeneas, at The Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, on Saturday, June 20

COMPOSED some time in the late 1600s, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is one of the first, if not the first, English operas. In the programme for this extremely well performed recital, the note writer mentions some of the questions still unanswered for this piece where there is no known original edition to work from.

Question 1, should the Sorceress be sung by a man or a woman... but I think the word Sorceress is a bit of a giveaway there.

Question 2, which instrument(s) should play the continuo part? Well, the musicians on this occasion used a baroque cello for most of the bass lines and the sound and timbre on that ancient instrument could not be improved upon in my humble opinion.

As to their third question, should the ensemble include a double bass... please refer to my previous sentence. In any case double bass would not have been known in Purcell’s time and he wrote for harpsichord and cello on this occasion. Modern ensembles do use double bass but viola da gamba would be a better bet, surely?

There were, though, many bright and enjoyable moments in this performance and the clean, clear acoustic in the Memorial Chapel made it possible to hear every delightful note, clearly.

The choir sang very well, under the direction of conductor Roy Raby, and nine choir members had solo parts, which they executed with skill.

Helen Parker and Emma Brain-Gabbott were the professional sopranos and their bright sounds and precise diction added much to the enjoyment of this early opera.

William Townend was a strong baritone voice and did well as Aeneas. He was particularly impressive on the aria Ah Belinda, and both soprano and chorus made a moving ending on the best known aria at the conclusion, When I am Laid in Earth, known as Dido’s Lament.

The period instruments, and particularly the ground bass played on baroque cello, provided an impressive conclusion to this popular work.

Townend’s aria from Don Giovanni was a standout in the second half of this concert which featured popular opera choruses, including Mozart, Bizet, Borodin and Wagner.

Once again the choir and three main soloists distinguished themselves with glittering performances all round.

DEREK ANSELL

Handel's Messiah, February 2015

Modfather of choral works

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Messiah, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College, on Saturday, February 14 2015

HANDEL’S Messiah is one of those choral works with which audiences and performers feel especially familiar. Yet Pangbourne Choral Society, urged on by their new music director Roy Raby, performed this masterpiece with pulsating pace and dramatic intensity.

Newbury’s resident professional orchestra, the magnificent Southern Sinfonia, playing with energy and customary dexterity, provided the vital backbone, and the soloists (Hannah Nye – soprano, David Allsop – countertenor, Nicholas Smith – tenor, and Alex Otterburn – bass) were more than willing participants with their riveting and vital contributions. Highlights were Hannah Nye’s moving I know that my Redeemer liveth and David Allsop’s But who may abide and He was despised.

And what of the excellent Pangbourne Choral Society? For 100-odd singers to perform with such verve and tempo was an amazing achievement in itself. By the interval, we had been treated to arresting renditions of the familiar And the glory and For unto us a child is born. Especially noticeable were the fast exchanges between the four parts in And He shall purify, with flowing phrases punctuated by some emphatic moments.

As part two opened, one was left wondering how the ensemble would cope with the challenges ahead. Maybe there was the occasional sensation of ‘cornering on two wheels’ but the choir quickly and almost imperceptibly regained balance and motored on.

The peak of dramatic passion lay in Surely He hath borne our griefs, and All we like sheep was delivered with staccato, self-accusatory attack leading to the ensuing laments. The Hallelujah chorus was a revelation. All too often one hears well-delivered but pompously repetitive phrases. Roy Raby combined a sense of majesty with a breath-taking sureness of touch.

Finally, Hannah Nye (If God be with us) set up the concluding Worthy is the lamb and Amen choruses and the audience rose to applaud a Messiah that revealed a poignant and contemporary relevance. As Roy Raby said in his programme note: “This evening’s performance is a celebration of friendship, not a reflection of a bygone age or an elusive quest for an ‘authentic’ performance.”

And so it was.

PH

Mendelssohn's Elijah, February 2014

Elijah defeats the elements

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College on Saturday, February 15

THE power supply to the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel was restored at 3am on the morning of this first 40th anniversary concert of Pangbourne Choral Society. Thank goodness it was, otherwise a huge audience would have missed a huge performance of a wonderful work.

This was a real tour de force by PCS under the baton of its musical director Jonathan Brown. Elijah demands sustained expressive singing from soloists and chorus working in close harmony to bring to life one of the finest stories in the Old Testament. I overheard one audience member describe the evening as ‘a major event’ – something of an understatement.

We knew we were on to something good from the very start. Elijah (baritone Quentin Hayes) opens quietly with a warning to the unfaithful Israelites that they will have no rain, and after the dark D minor overture, the Israelites (Chorus) erupt into a desperate cry – Help Lord! Wilt thou quite destroy us? The power of the opening reverberated through the chapel’s brilliant acoustics – quite riveting. So the story of Elijah’s battles with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel unfolds and it is hard to choose specific highlights because they came so thick and fast.

The key to this performance was its dramatic energy. It was enacted with conviction and total commitment. At its heart was the quartet of excellent soloists. Tenor Richard Coxon (Ahab and Obidiah) sang as if he were at the Royal Opera House; baritone Quentin Hayes’s Elijah had gravitas and his taunting of the priests of Baal was full of dramatic menace. As Jezebel, Claire Williams (mezzo-soprano) stirred the people against Elijah towards a choral climax that was totally convincing. And Claire Seaton (soprano) rose above the mayhem to exhort the Israelites to better ways through her angelic arias. The four soloists came together beautifully as angels in the Cast thy burden upon the Lord aria.

The chorus was in fine voice and vital in creating this dramatic musical narrative. As the priests of Baal they launched into the two-choir/four-part choruses, vainly exhorting their god with rising intensity in response to Elijah’s taunts.

And the ladies, as angels, came into their own in the unaccompanied Lift thine eyes to the mountains. If there was a slight drop in pitch, it was totally overwhelmed by a performance of rare sensitive expression. In particular, one noticed a rich vein of alto singing – deep and sonorous.

Was it fanciful to feel that the stormy climax The waters gather, they rush along reflected the stormy scenes of the Thames Valley? At times the tempo was fast and furious, but the words of the story were seldom lost.

So we came to the finale And then shall your light break forth as the light of the morning breaketh. Even at the end of this monumental work, the choir managed to sustain a strong, harmonious and majestic conclusion.

Many in the audience and in the choir must have braved the floods and the gales to come to this anniversary concert. They went home happy. Jonathan Brown should be delighted with the progress made by his charges. They went way beyond any reasonable expectation to deliver something really special.

PH