Christmas Celebration started with a melodious Glad Tidings from HCS, followed by an allcomers’ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. After three HCS carols, including a delightfully performed Lute Book Lullaby, James Gower delivered a golden-voiced solo The Star of Bethlehem, that location being reprised with the audience carol O Little Town….

The bright-faced choristers of St Joseph’s In the Park then took the stage with two carols, including a beautifully arranged and enthusiastically sung When Christ was Born of Mary Free.

The HCS high point in the first half was O Holy Night, which along with James Gower’s rich bass tones moved us close to heaven. An energetic Merrily the Angels followed by a beautifully modulated O Come All Ye Faithful  from everyone brought the first half to a resounding close.

Post-interval, HCS’ energetic Ring Out Wild Bells led into an interactive version of Nova, Nova, an entertaining pantomimic singalong. St Joseph’s choir then returned with a pure-voiced and charmingly-delivered Rocking and Mid-Winter.

James sang three 20th century seasonal songs with great emotional depth and vocal range, including White Christmas as you have never heard it before. The audience paid due tribute with a lusty Good King Wenceslas, but showed sufficient discipline to make way for St Joseph’s delightfully sung Page.

Reluctant to abandon pantomime, Derek Harrison and Roger Mullis delighted the audience with a seemingly impromptu Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti. HCS came back with a supremely balanced delivery of Bortniansky’s quasi-operatic Glory to God in the Highest.

Christmas Celebration ended with a rousing Hark the Herald from all present and HCS’ songful wish for A Merry Christmas.

A few individual credits: Christopher Muhley for his excellent accompaniments, Roger Mullis for his inimitable interstitials and of course James Gower for those stunning vocals. Last but not least, Derek Harrison created a superbly entertaining programme, showing again that this annual concert is the best starter to the festive season.

A final word of congratulation is for the choir itself which proved that the stronger balance between parts achieved in November’s Petite Messe Solennelle was no one-off but is now taking it from strength to strength.

To add a last mot mindful of Roger Mullis, the HCS is currently truly ‘on song’!

Keith Wilkinson

Rossini’s reason for turning again to a major choral work after years of near-total silence was probably a commission from Count Alexis Pillet-Will for his wife, to whom the work is dedicated, and at whose house the first performance took place. This may also explain the relatively modest forces employed (12 singers, 2 pianos, and harmonium). Rossini later produced an orchestral version and added the soprano solo O salutaris hostia. The version given on Saturday was for piano, harmonium, and full choir.

Of Saturday’s performance, the first thing to note is the sheer joy which seemed to radiate from all the performers of this extraordinary music. The four soloists were all top class and well suited to the “operatic” nature of some of the solo writing – hardly surprising given Rossini’s pedigree. Tenor Daniel Joy performed the first solo item Domine Deus magnificently, and the soprano/mezzo duet Qui Tollis was ravishingly given by Katherine Crompton and Kate Symonds-Joy. Bass Edward Grint sang his solo Quoniam with great power and subtlety, and the two soprano solos were sung with a combination of delicacy and power by Katherine Crompton.  Main honours, though, go to the choir, who sang throughout with enormous gusto, their enjoyment of the piece very evident, their intonation was impeccable and the words clearly enunciated.

The very demanding piano part was a tour-de-force for Sue Graham Smith, its massive fortissimo chords, more reminiscent of Brahms or Rachmaninov than Rossini, require a depth and power which must be very taxing in a work of this length. Anne Page gave a virtuoso performance on the harmonium, and added two short but very challenging pieces after the interval to demonstrate the qualities of that now rarely-heard instrument.

Maestro Derek Harrison’s tempi are always well judged, and allow his singers time to breath. He celebrates 40 years with HCS this year, and may he continue for many more.

Rossini wrote on the work’s final page that he didn’t know whether the music was “sacred or sacrilegious”. Whatever the verdict on that, heavenly it undoubtedly is. A wonderful concert and an evening full of joy.

Gordon Williams

Hertford Choral Society performed Elgar's Dream of Gerontius on 19th March 2016.  A review is given below, and pictures were also created by members of Hertford Art Society inspired by the piece.

Elgar wrote on the newly-completed score of The Dream of Gerontius “this is the best of me”. Whilst the influence of Brahms and Wagner is readily apparent, the work remains uniquely Elgarian, one of his most profound and powerful statements, and a tribute to his Roman Catholic faith, which remained strong throughout his life. The forces involved are huge, with full chorus, a massive orchestra, organ, and three first-class soloists required. Elgar rarely uses them all at once, but rather as a variety of timbres and colours, though when he does use the full forces, the climaxes are massively powerful. Balancing all these disparate elements requires masterly conducting, and maestro Derek Harrison, whose favourite work this is, proved more than up to the task, presenting a well-controlled performance, in which every word sung could be clearly heard.

First honours among the singers must, of course, go to tenor Adrian Thompson.  The part of Gerontius is very demanding, long, and with most at full voice and fortissimo. Mr Thompson never seemed to flag, and yet the quiet parts were sung with great feeling, managing to fill the vast spaces of the church at each volume level. David Wilson-Johnson’s baritone was excellent in the roles of the priest and the Angel of the agony. The Mezzo Rebecca Afonwy-Jones both looked and sang angelically as the Angel.

The chorus, as usual were meticulously rehearsed and sang with fine intonation throughout. Elgar’s orchestration is perfectly judged, always allowing the singers to be heard , and the orchestral playing was committed throughout.

This was a very fine performance on all counts, and I cannot but look forward to the next concert by our very own choral society, Hertford Choral Society.

Gordon Williams

Christmas Sparkle lived up to its name from the start with an energetic African Noel, providing a welcome audience warmer, sustained with the advent hymn Lo he comes with Clouds Descending. The choir returned with a powerfully harmonic rendition of A Babe is Born, followed by O Little Town of Bethlehem, notable for confidently alternating well-balanced voice parts.

Next came a harp solo of Henriette Renié's Légende, a symphonic tone poem based on a French ghost story, superbly played by guest artiste Elisabeth Bass. An interactive choir-audience version of John Rutter's Star Carol was followed by three carols from the Mill Mead School choir, whose enthusiastic faces enlivened the evening. Christ was born on Christmas Day, followed up with A Lullaby of the Nativity, which was the harmonic high-point of Part One.

Part Two started strongly, with five from Britten's Ceremony of Carols, culminating in the superbly rendered stretto sections of This little Babe and Deo Gracias, with choir and harp melding at times into a single instrument. Three more songs from Mill Mead led into a magical rendition from Elizabeth Bass of Liszt's Liebestraum no. 3.

After a powerfully harmonious Once, as I remember, the choral high spot of the second half was John Rutter's arrangement of King Jesus Hath a Garden, with contributions of intense musicality from Elizabeth and flute soloist Sally Quantrill. Audience participation was strong in Part Two, highlights being Lord of the Dance and Hark the Herald.

Derek Harrison deserves congratulation for blending the familiar with sufficient novelty to keep the programme fresh. Christopher Muhley's consistently brilliant organ and piano accompaniments, and his ability to move seamlessly between the two, deserve high praise also, as does the incomparable Roger Mullis, reprising his role as master of ceremonies to punctuate music and song with a blend of captivating detail and seasonable humour.

Keith Wilkinson

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

Reviews of Past Concerts