Finchley Choral Society

Zadok the Priest [Coronation Anthem]
Missa in angustiis (Nelson Mass)

Rachel Nicholls (soprano)
Francis Bourne (mezzo-soprano)
Simon Wall (tenor)
Michael Bundy (baritone)

Finchley Choral Society

Orchestra Nova
George Vass

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 18 November, 2007
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

George VassThis was the Finchley Choral Society’s evening. Now into its second century, the Society, drawing on residents of Finchley and the Borough of Barnet, offers musical performance of the highest possible standard – in a fine, superbly- controlled sound. The soloists and Orchestra Nova were distinguished adjuncts to the occasion. This was also George Vass’s evening – his finale as the Choir’s music director, a post he has held since 1999.

We began with the familiar rolling tones of “Zadok the Priest”. Handel wrote this Anthem in 1727 for the coronation in Westminster Abbey of King George II and Queen Caroline. It has been performed at every coronation since. The proportions in this performance differed from those of 1727 – here, the choir was larger, the orchestra smaller. Thus the 7-part choir dominated, blazing out resplendently after the tension of the initial orchestral build-up and glittering quite gloriously during the culminating accolade of staccato quavers and rapid semiquaver passages.

Cecilia McDowall is Composer-in-Association to the Finchley Choral Society. The “Magnificat” is an FCS commission and was first performed in 2003 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb under George Vass. McDowall writes in a most accessible style – melodic and with agreeable harmonies, together with a sprinkling of astutely-judged discord and idiosyncracy of intervals. She writes soberly, with transparent devotedness to her spiritual texts and a sustaining simplicity, tending towards moderato. There is a market for such music – music that declares itself with sincerity and some compositional ingenuity as both fresh and timeless, as well as being enjoyable for amateurs to sing.

There was a most agreeable variety of mood, too – a solemn orchestral introduction for oboe, cor anglais, bassoon and strings; a faster-paced choral movement; a soprano solo with delicate, graceful woodwinds accompanying; a gently-flowing contemplative chorus; a mezzo-soprano solo with soulful bassoon accompaniment; a fanfare to herald the soprano/mezzo-soprano duet and an expansive coda following a return to the opening chorus.

Rachel Nicholls. Photograph: Andreas LlandinoRachel Nicholls’s voice is powerful, resplendent and ringing – a fanfare of a voice, capable, though, of a resonant softness. Francis Bourne’s mezzo is quieter and more delicate – gentle, soft and very much suited McDowall’s work. Nicholls excels in the triumphal and extravert; Bourne in the poignant and introvert. Each had effect in her solo; the duet, however, was a mismatch. The chorus produced beautiful, softly-modulated sounds throughout – apt and rapt.

The final work on the programme was Haydn’s “Nelson Mass” – the mass “in difficult times”. The latter may refer to musical life during the ‘reforms’ of Prince Anton Esterhazy: on accession to the title and the estates in 1794, he dismissed the woodwind band and virtually closed down the court at Esterhaza. Haydn was left with strings, trumpets, timpani and organ. These forces in effect dictated that his new Mass of 1798 was public and declaratory – possibly a statement of Catholic defiance in the face of the ‘godless’ revolutionary Napoleon (i.e. grander ‘difficult times’). The ‘Kyrie’ is resplendent and dramatic, challenging. At its close, Nicholls soared over the trumpets and timpani, in great splendour. She blazed, likewise, at the close of the ‘Credo’. Bourne was too gentle. Simon Wall, substitute for the indisposed Andrew Carwood, contributed a clear, resonant tenor. Michael Bundy was stalwart and rather fruity.

The chorus alternated creditably with the soloists in the ‘Credo’ and came splendidly and authoritatively to the fore in the ‘Sanctus’ and the ‘Benedictus.’ The fugue and conclusion in the ‘Agnus Dei’ were exhilarating – a credit to themselves and to George Vass, who was acclaimed vigorously at the end of the performance, with evident respect and affection.

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