Hertford Choral Society performed Schubert Mass in A Flat, Unfinished Symphony ; Chilcott Dances of Time on Saturday 2nd November 2019 at All Saints' Church, Hertford. with  and Soloists were Alexandra Stevenson (soprano), Janet Shell (mezzo soprano), Matthew Spillett (tenor), Thomas Humphreys (bass), accompanied by the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. Musical Director and Conductor was Derek Harrison

Despite some rather inclement weather, a large and enthusiastic audience turned out to hear the Hertford Choral Society’s autumn concert this weekend. They have come to expect the main Choral Society concerts to be a bit of an event, and this one did not disappoint, featuring, as it did, a new work, an old favourite and a less well-known Schubert mass as a grand finale, all accompanied by the splendid Chameleon Arts Orchestra and featuring four fantastic soloists.

The evening started with Dances of Time by Bob Chilcott, a work commissioned in 2015 by his old friend and fellow King’s Singer, Brian Kay. In this piece he sets a selection of five poems from different sources in a style which is deft and charming, if unchallenging to the audience. The sound of a number of earlier composers is apparent, Vaughan Williams in particular. I felt (as did others) that the more substantial fourth movement “To every thing there is a season” was the highlight; the text setting here was done with great taste and feeling and the choir performed it beautifully. Elsewhere, some over-heavy orchestration combined with, perhaps, a certain lack of restraint meant that the orchestral sound dominated and the choir was hard to hear, particularly in the earlier movements, which was frustrating.

Next, the Chameleon Arts Orchestra on their own were given a chance to shine, playing Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. This was conducted by Derek Harrison with warmth and grace, allowing room for expansive dynamics and for the familiar melodies to shine through. A treat.

After the interval we came to Schubert’s Mass in A flat, a substantial piece which requires a lot of input from the choir, having unusually few sections where the choir is not singing. Again, projecting over a big orchestra, they needed to sing with energy and clarity, but also at times with subtlety and careful expression. The choir managed all this with aplomb. The Gloria, in particular, was tremendous; sung with excitement and incisiveness, the mighty fugue at the end building to the grandest of Amens.

In the Credo which follows there appeared to be more of a challenge to sustain the excitement. This is partly a liturgical problem – the text of the Credo is long and Schubert (unlike some other composers) declined to break it up into smaller movements, making it a challenge to sing through. Some detail suffered; the more chromatic harmonic changes were a little vague and there were some co-ordination problems between the choir and orchestra in the Crucifuxus, however these issues were transient, and the movement was rounded off with style on another Amen.

Schubert’s trademark gifts for rapturous melody and romantic yearning seemed particularly to come out in the final two movements of the piece. The Benedictus, in particular was strikingly beautiful, and wonderfully sung by the soloists and choir. This quality was also carried into the beginning of the Agnus Dei, however Schubert obviously didn’t feel that a quiet ending to a large work was appropriate so, rather amusingly, we got a big, almost march-like finale to the words “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us thy peace).

It has to be said that the quartet of soloists for this performance were truly excellent. The four voices were very well matched, singing with great musical sensitivity as a stand-out quartet. It felt rather a shame that they didn’t have more to do!

The standards we have come to expect from the long-standing conductor of HCS, Derek Harrison, were fully in evidence in this evening’s music. The choir was, as always, well prepared, synchronised and expressive, producing a blended warm sound. Schubert’s (and indeed Chilcott’s) music was brought fully to life and the audience were uplifted by hearing some great music, beautifully performed.

Oliver Hitch, November 2019