Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2006 – Highgate Choral Society

Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Pastoral ‘Lie strewn the white flocks’
Mass in C minor, K 427

Elizabeth Cragg (soprano)
Mary Nelson (soprano)
Catherine Hopper (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (tenor)
Mark Evans (baritone)

Highgate Choral Society

New London Orchestra
Ronald Corp

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 May, 2006
Venue: All Hallows' Church, Hampstead, London, NW3

Despite its gigantic scale the cavernous recesses of All Hallows’ church were packed to the rafters for this major offering in the Hampstead & Highgate Festival, a compact and well-organised event that continues until 20 May. Under the direction of George Vass this Festival has gone from strength to strength featuring not just a fine musical programme but also an enterprising range of literary events under the guidance of Piers Plowright.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro showcased the strings of Ronald Corp’s New London Orchestra and received a relaxed and mellow performance, rather lacking in fire (the “devil of a fugue” could have done with an injection of adrenaline) and flexibility – but was warm and glowing, the return of the ‘Welsh’ theme at the climax being suitably sonorous.

More engaging was Sir Arthur Bliss’s Pastoral (1928), which is dedicated to Elgar. This substantial half-hour work had its genesis during a motoring trip across Sicily, a memento of the magic days Bliss spent there, and it depicts a Sicilian day from dawn to dusk. The eight poems Bliss selected have as their common themes rustic life, the legends of the gods and the symbols of love associated with the Golden Age. Besides choir and orchestra Pastoral features an extensive part for solo flute, superbly played here by Sarah Newbold and a solo for mezzo (Catherine Hopper) in which a young girl whispers her story of love to her tame pigeon.

Writing to Bliss after the first performance, Elgar (who had heard the premiere on a BBC radio broadcast) commented “I like it exceedingly. The Pan sections suited me best”. On the evidence of this performance, the ‘Hymn to Pan’ and the two closing ‘Shepherd’s Night Songs’, one of them a slow Siciliano, are the most memorable sections. Elsewhere, especially in ‘Pan & Echo’, the choir had some pitch problems but the exuberant ‘Song of the Reapers’, a prayer to the god Demeter, came over lustily.

Mozart’s (unfinished) C minor Mass represented an altogether sterner challenge, especially when Elizabeth Watts, recent winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Awards, cancelled. However, Elizabeth Cragg (she has sung with Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic) gave a fine contribution in the opening ‘Kyrie’ – surely one of the most heart-stopping moments in all Mozart – as well as crowning the evening with a quite thrilling ‘Et Incarnatus’, at once tender and stylish. No less satisfactory was the personable soprano of Mary Nelson, her slightly warmer sound blending well with the more silvery quality of Cragg’s voice. There were impressive contributions too from Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks and Mark Evans, and the quartet blended well as a whole.

The large choir (unlisted in the programme but getting on for 200 members) was at its most impressive at moments such as the opening of the ‘Credo’, which came across with grandeur at a relaxed tempo. Elsewhere, such as in ‘Osanna in excelsis’ (Mozart at his most sturdily Handelian), one sensed that the choir would have responded to a more decisive lead from the conductor who all-too-often seemed content to beat time rather than shape proceedings. Nonetheless amateur choral societies such as that from Highgate are the lifeblood of this country’s choral tradition.

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