St Albans Choral Society show their spirit

A WELL-balanced programme of works by English and French composers was presented by St Albans Choral Society in their final concert of the season, and was enthusiastically received by the large audience on a hot and airless evening in St Peter’s Church, St Albans.

Under the baton of the Society’s Director of Music George Vass, with Richard Harvey providing organ accompaniment, the choir – slightly reduced in numbers on this occasion – launched energetically into the first of two anthems by Sir Edward Elgar.

These anthems were part of a particularly fertile period in the composer’s creative life preceding World War One. Give unto the Lord was written in 1914 for the Sons of the Clergy Festival in St Paul’s Cathedral and is Elgar’s response to the words of Psalm 29. The vitality and rhythmic clarity from the choir contrasted well with some lovely legato singing in the central section, and again in the final bars with the repeated words “...the Blessing of Peace” which made the perfect segue into the next item on the programme.

The Peace Mass was composed by one-time member of the King’s Singers Bob Chilcott initially for a children’s choral festival in 1998. Written for the upper voices of a choir, the work opens – and finishes – with an undulating theme sung in unison in the style of plain-song.

This provides the thematic material for the five movements of the piece which is based on the Ordinary of the Mass. The women of the choir introduced this theme with singing of a suitably clear and innocent quality which was maintained throughout the Kyrie.

The Gloria, with the composer’s very personal style of syncopated rhythms and cross-rhythms, was crisply performed with clear articulation of the Latin text. The gentle Sanctus is followed by the Benedictus with its flowing lines underpinned by insistent repeats of the four syllables of the word ‘Benedictus’. The overlapping entries of the Agnus Dei were a little too gentle to be heard clearly but this was a very touching performance and was obviously popular with the audience.

The second Elgar anthem Great is the Lord was performed with gusto, the choir making good use of the composer’s love of musical sequences to build up to some spine-chilling climaxes, and then again to subside to moments of great tranquillity. The rich baritone voice of Christopher Foster added a suitably Elgarian quality to the performance and provided an oasis of calm reflection in the Andante section.

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The main work in the programme was the large-scale Requiem by Maurice Durufl� in the version he made for choir, soloists and organ. Considered by some as the last of the Impressionists, his style in this work is mostly serene and meditative.

The choir gave a very sincere and unaffected performance with some emotionally-charged climaxes particularly in the Sanctus and Libera Me sections. The poignant Pie Jesu was expressively performed by mezzo-soprano Lorna Perry with a lovely feeling for the phrasing and shape of this movement.

Baritone Christopher Foster conveyed a quiet intensity in his St Michael moment in the Domine Jesu Christe, and the fire needed for his short Day of Wrath interjection in the Libera Me. This is a testing work for the sopranos and they came through with a purity of tone appropriate to the spirituality of the work. Particularly moving was the final In Paradisum where the soul of the departed finds eternal rest, the final, unresolved chord fading gradually into silence.

The soloists played their part superbly, and conductor George Vass brought out all the best qualities of the choir. But the star of the evenng was organist Richard Harvey whose contribution underpinned the entire performance.

Durufl� was himself a virtuoso concert organist as well as composer and it comes as no surprise then that the organ part of the Requiem requires a suitably able performer. Richard coped with the exigencies of the score with apparent ease which I suspect belied the pressure he must have been under. His contribution was rightly acknowledged by the conductor and audience alike.