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.