Wimbledon Choral Society & NQHO

Psalm 23 [First performance]
Mass in D minor (Nelson)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Wendy Dawn Thompson (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Cheyney Kent (bass)

Wimbledon Choral Society

New Queen’s Hall Orchestra
Michael Ashcroft

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 November, 2004
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

This concert scored successes for the hall, the chorus and orchestra, the composer of the new work, and for the genius of Haydn. Cadogan Hall, just by Sloane Square tube station, is a splendid home (and recording studio) for chamber and instrumental music, for song, and for ‘classical’ orchestras with or without chorus. (Maybe the hum from the air-conditioning could be attended to, though? And, for this concert, the extension to the stage proved creakily intrusive.)

The Wimbledon Choral Society is a wholly excellent group; unanimity, balance and commitment is first-class, and the Society’s members tackled this ambitious pairing of works, both roughly 40 minutes, with devotion.

Timothy Sutton’s setting of Psalm 23 made a big impression. This is a melodic and involving work, and while it may have moments of greyness and repetition, there’s also a heartfelt generosity in this music that lingers in the memory. Psalm 23 is scored for soprano (the vividly communicative Lucy Crowe), bass (the disappointingly colourless and under-projected Cheyney Kent), chorus, and an orchestra consisting of strings, pairs of the usual woodwinds, three trombones, harp, timpani and occasional percussion (xylophone and “sheep bells”, the latter timeless in effect). On the evidence of Psalm 23, Sutton’s choral music is in the best British tradition. Herbert Howells seems a particular influence. Add in some spice in the form of Eastern glissandos, and openness worthy of Leonard Bernstein, for a score that numerous choral societies will surely welcome.

The composer, who is the Wimbledon Choral Society’s pianist, seemed very moved by this first performance of music composed in memory of his son Edmund (1981-2003). The work is innately composed for choral resources and thoughtfully orchestrated. The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra’s distinctive sounds and perfect balances were finely demonstrated: the trombones lacked nothing in dramatic intervention yet never threatened to coarsely dominate, and the woodwinds were a delight (from dulcet flutes to wonderfully ‘woody’ bassoons, a characterful octet indeed). This is an orchestra steadfastly preserving what British symphony orchestras sounded like in the first half of the last century. In an age that seems more concerned with loudness and brilliance, the NQHO makes a pertinent difference.

The plaintive timbres of gut strings also made a telling contribution, and the unforced, almost balletic string-playing in Haydn’s Nelson Mass was a joy, so too the three trumpets’ non-piercing ‘warnings’ (this is a Mass “in time of war”). The dramatic clarity of the timpani was thrilling. Haydn doesn’t include woodwinds in his Nelson Mass (a shame given the NQHO’s pedigree in this department) and is not, as the unsigned programme-note suggested, Haydn’s “largest” work of this type: that distinction belongs to the circa 70-minute Missa Sanctae Caeciliae. The Nelson is a masterpiece of economy, theatre and humanity. If the solo singers had their inconsistencies, and the chamber-organ (for all its gentle carolling) was too reticent at times, this ultimately was an inspiring team effort under the vital baton of Michael Ashcroft, his choir both buoyant and sensitive, a ‘real’ performance, Haydn in harmony with two splendid ensembles that will no doubt forge further links; maybe a regular series in the intimate yet spacious and discreetly lit Cadogan Hall?

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