Hertford Choral Society returned to familiar ground with an excellent performance of Messiah Handel with the Hertfordshire Baroque Soloists and a strong line-up of soloists.

I say familiar but, in a nice twist, Derek Harrison devised a route through the work eschewing some of the more familiar movements in Part Two to allow time for some frequently omitted movements in Part Three, including a superb duet for Counter-Tenor and Tenor - with the challenge to Death's sting being thrown back and forth between the two.

The orchestra gave a spirited account of the Overture playing at Handel's original pitch which gave a warmer less pressed sound. This continued in the choruses where the Sopranos and Tenors were able to create a much more lyrical sound than is sometimes the case.

Natasha Page gave stylish, lyrical performances of her movements with well-considered ornamentation.

Ian Aitkenhead gave similarly polished accounts of the Counter-Tenor arias demonstrating a wide range of colour and control.

Mark Chaundy had a well-considered approach to the Tenor arias though, for me, the anger/violence of the dashing and breaking of the Potter's Vessel was rather tame.

James Gower gave commanding accounts of his movements, showing both great lyricism and a cavernous lower register. This was deployed to great effect in 'The Trumpet shall sound' where for once the words, rather than the trumpet, were to the fore.

The chorus sang with great skill and élan - and pulled off a neat coup de theatre by singing the Hallelujah chorus from memory, thereby giving it extra intensity and focus. Throughout their diction was exemplary and they maintained a good balance between parts - especially in the unaccompanied chordal movements. If there were a few slips in the trickier parts of a couple of movements they were expertly recovered by the clear direction of Derek Harrison almost before they occurred.

It would be wrong not to mention the skilful way the church was lit - bringing out the warmth of the stone and highlighting the magnificent roof. A most enjoyable evening; for the skill of the music-making, for the re-acquaintance with some familiar friends and for the introduction to some new ones.

Martin G Penny

I suspect that I was not alone in being filled with suspicion at the inclusion of an accordion quintet. I had memories of a boyhood friend whose parents had splashed out on an impressive looking monster with a clatter of grinning piano keys and chrome plating all over the other end, on which he was adept at noisily wheezing out popular tunes; but with a choir? I tried to correct this reaction with recollections of seeing a Victorian harmonium in a corner of more than one parish church in the past, which seemed to make more sense but in no way prepared me for the surprises in store.

The first surprise was that somewhere in that group of five instruments resided a resonant base that pounded out the marching rhythm of the Toreador Song from Bizet's Carmen in a very convincing manner as Derek Harrison made his grand progress towards taking up the baton and the choir voices meanwhile rang forth with commendable vigour to welcome him and us.

After such a rousing start Hymne a l'Amour seemed a little tame. Without the intense croaks of Piaf's unique voice the actual tune was rather ordinary and I couldn't stop the rasping intensity of her typical delivery coming up from the back of my mind and leaving the choral version seeming flat. The accordions here could be their old fashioned selves, however, with appropriately nostalgic gallic ornament between the sung passages. There was a bit more to La Mer by Trenet, which illustrated how the accordions could add texture in a quieter piece in lieu of the organ.

Following the joint introductory pieces the leader of Accordion5, Ian Watson, gave us a very welcome talk explaining the modern advances in the instrument. One of the five really was a bass instrument that reached right down into the basement, two of the instruments had the piano keys of the traditional style, but the other two were button accordions with an array of buttons much more numerous than the old style keys, which give a far greater range on the right hand, and on the left hand offer a choice of playing preset chords or individual notes as on the right hand. The increased versatility offers the possibility of arranging orchestral pieces with differing but satisfying results equivalent to a small organ. Demonstration ensued; Tango Invention by Thomas Ott demonstrated an unexpected richness of tones, and in the Irish Suite by Mathias Sieber that followed real musical feeling came through, the final reel displaying an array of rich contrasts to convince any doubter.

The choir replied with a group of songs from A Sprig of Thyme suite by John Rutter, the composer's gift for melody drawing the best from the choir, and this was followed by what for me was the high point of the evening; Bless The Lord, by the young British composer Jonathan Dove. This brought choir and accordions together in a tour de force of rich complexity, a feast of intricate music which had almost defeated the choir in rehearsal. No doubt this, and Derek Harrison in his Duke of Wellington driving into battle impersonation (it being so near to Waterloo day) ensured that everyone was charged up with plenty of adrenalin and the performance was clear and exciting, with some of the best articulated singing of the evening. Both in accompanying, where they enriched the sound, and in the interludes between sung passages equivalent to a petit organ everything worked together. Jonathan Dove had in fact arranged his original organ accompaniment for accordions specially for this concert and it had a grand organ style lead in to the choir's entry. It was a shame he was unable to attend to take the applause. This piece best illustrated how the unusual combination could work together, as well as being an exciting modern composition that rewarded close attention. After all that, Mozart seemed almost restrained, but the adrenalin must still have been working for the chorus who sang the more familiar work with precision, and the arrangement for the Dies Irae produced a good balance of voices and accompaniment once more.

After the interval the adrenalin effect seemed to continue, reinforced with a coffee, and good interpretations of Faures Cantique de Jean Racine and the more recent Sanctus and Benedictus from Messe Solonelle by Jean Langlais were very pleasing, with accordions blending nicely in the first and equivalent to a small organ with fine swelling volume in the second. The musicians followed with two final offerings, Intercity, by Adolf Gotz, which took the syllables of In-ter-city and built an interesting set of variations on them, followed by Variations on a well known Theme by Gerhard Deutschmann . I cannot for the life of me recall what the well known theme was! But I noted that the variations developed it in interesting ways and my appreciation of the possibilities of the modern accordion had risen still higher by the end.

In the second half the singers seemed more assured.  There was some easier listening to finish on from well known musicals, Gershwin and Cole Porter, and a real rouser of swelling volume in the jolly Libertango by Astor Piazzola to march us out briskly. It was an interesting concert, a first for such a collaboration, at once intriguing and full of possibilities for development; stimulating and enjoyable.

Richard Henderson

“I wrote it for all humanity” said Brahms of his German Requiem, refuting the notion that he had joined the pan-German nationalist movement exemplified by Bismark and Wagner. Indeed, he might have called it, with some justification, “A Protestant Requiem” since it is based on texts from the Lutheran bible, rather than the Latin texts favoured by the Catholic Church.

This wonderful work received a truly glorious performance from HCS, the Chameleon Arts Orchestra, and maestro Derek Harrison. The soloists, Claire Seaton (soprano) and Gareth Brynmor John (baritone) were on top form and sang with power and feeling in their respective parts. The choir’s singing was first class, and their German pronunciation, intensively rehearsed, was immaculate and distinct. The problems of balance sometimes occurring in this spacious church were nowhere apparent. Placing the tenors immediately behind the orchestra instead of high in the rafters enabled them to be heard more clearly, and Derek Harrison’s control of the orchestra ensured that they never overpowered the singers, even in the great climaxes. The quiet conclusion of the piece was splendid, a gradual dying away which brought the evening to a peaceful close.

The Requiem performance was complemented by an exhibition of pictures from Hertford Arts Society illustrating various themes from the text. These were colourful and interesting concepts, and added to the enjoyment of the evening.

The concert opened as it closed, with Brahms, in more boisterous mood, in the Academic Festival Overture. This potpourri of student songs, arranged with truly Brahmsian skill, got things off to a rousing start, with the chorus joining in the concluding Gaudeamus Igitur, not Brahms’s idea, but a good one nonetheless. Schubert’s brief but beautiful Stabat Mater followed, sung with taste and feeling, and the first half closed with Mozart’s  Masonic Funeral Music, a piece not composed for an actual funeral, but to accompany a Masonic ceremony. A short work, lasting about four minutes, it nevertheless runs the gamut of emotions, concluding with a triumphant major-key resolution.

A glorious evening of beautiful music.

Gordon Williams

Anyone in the large audience filling All Saints Church to capacity on Saturday must have felt that Christmas had really come as soon as they entered the beautifully decorated building, and that feeling only grew stronger as the choir and all their guests performed with heart and soul and voice music full of warmth and joy.

This programme banished all thoughts of shopping malls and internet glitches, and reminded us all of the glory and variety of Christmas music. The concert began without any introduction as the sweet and delicate sounds of the handbells filled the church and hushed us to silence.  The expertise of the Broxbourne Handbell Ringers is remarkable and the musicality of their performance was a revelation of the range of this instrument, so appropriate at this time of year.

The Choral Society was also joined for this evening by the Duncombe School Choir under their conductor, Vanessa Welch.  They gave an exciting performance of carols which were new to most of us, and which they obviously enjoyed.  It was encouraging to see enough boys to perform the story of “King Herod” without the girls and with great enthusiasm.  Keep singing, boys, don’t give up, we need you.  The whole choir’s contribution was as refreshing as a fizzy drink after a mince pie, and we loved them.       

Hertford Choral Society, the foundation of the evening, was on absolutely top form.  Their conductor, Derek Harrison, had only a short  rehearsal  time  and had chosen their items wisely, with some old favourites such as  ”Ding Dong! Merrily on high” and others unfamiliar like the very unexpected “Ragtime Carol”, delivered with much vigour.  But old or new each piece had been carefully prepared and was impeccably delivered, with pianissimos at times which were breathtaking.  The tenors and basses are particularly strong at the moment, and are going to sound wonderful singing  Brahms in the spring (adver!).

There were also invaluable contributions from the organist, Nick Robinson, the flautist, Sally Quantrill, and the indispensable compere, Roger Mullis.  Over £1,000 was collected for charity, and altogether we enjoyed an evening in the true spirit of Christmas.

Susan Hitch

The evening began in fine style with the Trio ‘jamming’ on Charlie Parker’s Billie’s Bounce.  Clean, clear and cool playing made it clear this was going to be some evening!

HCS joined the Trio in three of Chilcott’s Jazz Folk Songs. The House of the Rising Sun, a lazy cool with a well blended sound from the Gentlemen; Tell my Ma, a more lively style, bouncing along; Cherry Tree with nicely caught delicate Japanese derived textures and shapes.

Sarah Dacey sang Britten’s arrangement of The Last Rose of Summer with a beautiful legato over the turbulent accompaniment.

The Trio then performed an impressive treatment of When I fall in love.

A second group of three Jazz Folk Songs (arr. Chilcott) followed. Hush little baby, neat navigation of some captivating if unexpected modulations; There is my loved one, skilled sustained quiet singing; Waltzing Matilda, tidy singing of ingenious cross-rhythms.

The second half was devoted to Will Todd’s Mass in BlueKyrie had a dark almost smoky opening with clean tight vocal lines. The central jaunty Christe contrasted well.

Throughout the Gloria the crisp rhythms of trio swept the choir along.

Credo opened with crisp and clear words. Et incarnatus provided a moment of gentle repose. Et resurrexit had pulsing rhythm and a fast moving bass leading into an ecstatic Et expecto and Amen.
Sanctus was the least successful movement.  Its gentle style slipped into a level of timidity with some moments of slack rhythm and tuning.

By contrast the ensuing Benedictus was sung with great conviction and fire. The Double Bass and Chorus basses kicked it off with a real crisp foot-tapping ostinato.

Agnus was a sultry blues with Sarah Dacey delivering a well supported sound.  The contrasting Dona Nobis Pacem was pure magic.  The work and concert concluded in brilliant fashion with a ‘scat’ Credo.

What can Mr Harrison come up with next year? – I’ll certainly be there to find out!

Martin G Penny

With the Nation honouring the memory of those who fell in two World Wars and in many other subsequent conflicts, it was a very appropriate moment for Hertford Choral Society to present its concert In Remembrance.

Derek Harrison, Musical Director, compiled a program of music composed during the years before, during and after The Great War. The program stretched the musical skills of the Choral Society, as it required big singing as well as “singing small”, plus precision and great control. In this the Society did not disappoint its audience and for my part, their performance of John Tavener's Song for Athene was achingly good.

Two well-known and greatly-admired soloists, Fiona Hammacott singing soprano and Leandros Taliotis, baritone, gave us a collection of individual songs taken from the Great War period and also led the singing of Stanford’s Canticles in G Major, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, supported by the Choral Society and expertly accompanied by Peter Jaekel whose skill at the keyboards of both organ and piano was a highlight of the evening.

The second part of the evening’s concert began with an excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s famous poem For the Fallen which was then followed by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata Dona Nobis Pacem in which both the soloists, the accompanist and the Choral Society performed with passion in this emotional cry for Peace.

The audience very much appreciated both the content of the program and the opportunity, at such a poignant moment, to be present at and part of this Concert, which was well-rehearsed, well directed and conducted and which was delivered with dignity and respect.

Thank you to all concerned.

Christopher Maunder Taylor

J S Bach’s monumental late composition, completed just before his death in 1750, received a fitting performance at this concert. The number of singers to be used in this work has been the subject of much discussion, with selections ranging from one voice per part to full massed choirs. For me, there is no question that the piece works best in live performance with large forces, and HCS, with over one hundred singers, demonstrated that.

The four soloists were of high quality, Grace Davidson’s soprano has  a timbre of rare beauty, and the same can be said for alto Tim Travers-Brown, whose contributions held the rapt attention of the audience. Tribute must also be paid to the horn player who accompanied Colin Campbell’s soulfully sung bass aria and played the subsequent horn solo with complete command. Nick Madden sang his tenor parts with fine voice and depth of feeling.

The great choruses were handled by the choir with splendid unison and fine intonation, obviously well-rehearsed, but not lacking in spontaneity, and the overall impact was simply overwhelming. The problems of balance sometimes apparent at this venue were on this occasion solved, with maestro Harrison judging the orchestral volumes perfectly, to render the singers clearly audible. His choice of generally moderate tempi and avoidance of extremes brought out all beauty implicit in this masterpiece and steered it to an impressive conclusion.

Gordon Williams

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