A Feast Of Schubert

Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Mass in A flat, D678

Elizabeth Weisberg (soprano)
Lucie Spikova (mezzo-soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Philip Tebb (bass)

Wimbledon Choral Society

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Michael Ashcroft

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 26 May, 2007
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

For the final performance of its 2006-7 season, the Wimbledon Choral Society teamed up with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra; a very good decision because this orchestra allows the singers to be heard at their best. The orchestra uses instruments produced a century or so ago. The difference in the sound is most noticeable in woodwinds and brass, which do not obliterate all before them, allowing a more natural balance and greater details and texture: a new, old sound.

The first half of the concert did not involve the chorus though its members were on the platform throughout. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, one ideally suited to this venue and orchestra (of Schubert’s symphonies this one has the most chamber-like qualities), was a mixed bag, with the slow movement losing its way towards the end. This was down to Michael Ashcroft (the musical director of the Wimbledon Choral Society), who was too keen to explore all the minutiae of the score (in the context of a masterclass this would be a worthwhile exercise, especially with this orchestra), thus sacrificing a view of the whole. The symphony got off to a steady start with the flute producing a crystal-clear sound, with no hint of the breathy overtones that can be associated with the more-modern instrument. The horns, too, were able to produce penetrating sounds by going under the radar.

Handel’s “Gloria” is not a lost work; it is an unknown one that the composer failed to catalogue. It was discovered in 2001. Here Elizabeth Weisberg was accompanied by two violins, cello and chamber organ. It has a lot of (typical) Handelian operatic figurations, with the soprano ascending and descending the scales rapidly. These parts do not seem to meet the need of the liturgical text, but others certainly do; the section including the setting of the ‘Domine Deus’ was rightly pleading.

Schubert made several revisions to his A flat Mass; the second version was performed here but with the original fugue to conclude the ‘Gloria’. The fugue is a bit of a showstopper and so it robbed from the ‘Credo’ that followed some of its pathos. The NQHO’s sound was very welcome in this music, the timpani, fitted with animal hide that is particularly sensitive to the elements, were especially distinctive in crispness.

The orchestral sound was warm and supportive, which made it surprising that the male singers of the choir were often difficult to discern, particularly when the ladies were singing. The opening of the ‘Gloria’ from the soloists was uplifting without them having to be too powerful, and the tenor’s solo during the ‘Agnus Dei’ was clean and ably accompanied by the hushed sounds of the choir, which sung with enthusiasm and discipline. The star of the evening though was the orchestra, upstaging the soloists and its host, the choir, and offering a distinctive foundation.

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