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

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

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