Hertford Choral Society well and truely celebrated the summer solstice with the Black Dyke Band.

Held in the familiar venue of All Saints' Church, Hertford, which was packed to capacity, the audience enjoyed a wide-ranging programme, and were treated to a preview of one of Black Dyke Band's new arrangements due to be played during their set at the Glastonbury Festival the next day.

The concert was a very fitting conclusion to the 40th Anniversary year of the Musical Director and Conductor for Hertford Choral Society, Derek Harrison.

Hertford Choral Society featured strongly in a well-balanced programme of music by Haydn ably supported by the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. The concert got off to a good start with Insanae et vanae curae with a rich orchestral sound, effective dimuendi from the chorus and a good legato in the major sections.

Paul Mayes joined the orchestra to perform the evergreen Trumpet Concerto.  The opening showed off his clear bell like tones and the movement concluded with an imaginative cadenza.  The second movement was rather ‘matter of fact’, needing a much more legato line to match the beautiful phrasing of the strings and more care in pointing up Haydn’s ingenious visits to some startlingly remote keys (all designed to ‘show off’ the then new-fangled valve trumpet).  The final movement romped along to a rousing conclusion.  This deserved, and got, an enthusiastic reception.

The opening half ended with the Te Deum in C.  After a bright opening, there was much good detail and an effective balance between the chorus parts.  The demanding chromatics and obscure leaps were all well managed – bringing out Haydn’s sly joke in making the music for ‘confounded’ as awkward as possible with strange leaps and ever shifting harmonies.  The final fugue was well executed with careful, clean runs in all parts.

The second half was given over to the so called ‘Nelson’ Mass.  Derek Harrison reminded us all that as originally performed there would have been gaps, readings, probably a sermon and much else that separated the movements and so it was never Haydn’s expectation that they would be sung ‘straight through’. So for this performance there would be some extended moments of silence. It was helpful to have time to savour what had just been heard – though I felt the gaps were rather too long – in the mass one’s attention would be on whatever else was occurring. Nonetheless a good experiment and one I shall adopt on appropriate occasions.

The arresting opening of the Kyrie lead into some florid writing for the solo Soprano.  Fiona Hammacott made light of this and throughout her taxing solos showed great finesse and not a little stamina.  Whether it was this or familiarity is hard to say, but certainly the chorus sopranos rose to the challenge with added vigour.

The Gloria was our first opportunity to hear the solo quartet, all local singers and they made a well-balanced sound.  Julian Godlee made the most of his one big solo in the central section, punctuated by effective murmurings from the chorus. The final fugue was taken at quite a lick and brought the movement to a strong conclusion. The Credo was equally effective and Haydn’s cheeky use of rising phrases for descendit nicely brought out. The chorus seemed a little hesitant at first but rapidly grew in confidence giving the movement a very strong end. The orchestra had a chance to shine in the extensive opening of the Benedictus with a good internal balance and a short sharp Osanna from the chorus rounded it off well.

After confident and calm treatment of the first two sections of the Agnus Dei the really got their teeth into the final section – relishing the sudden pp’s whilst effectively conveying Haydn’s serene confidence in his maker.

As usual, Derek Harrison’s planning and direction were exemplary, showcasing just how skilled and varied a composer Haydn was.

Martin G Penny

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

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