Saturday, June 15, 2024

Review: Thurrock Choral Society: Christmas Concert

By Richard Wade

THURROCK Choral Society’s decision two years ago to begin combining their autumn and Christmas concerts into one event has produced some interestingly mixed programmes, and this year’s seasonal concert, given at Thameside Primary School in Grays on Sunday 6th. December, was no exception. Indeed, it is difficult to do justice in a short review to such an intriguing variety of music.

It was an inspired idea to bring back the Bridgetower Trio, who made such an impression at the Society’s last summer concert, and whose highly accomplished pianist, Elspeth Wilkes, is the Society’s professional accompanist. Apart from their “solo” items, the trio also constituted a small orchestra to accompany choruses by Handel and Haydn, which otherwise would have had only keyboard accompaniment. One of the players was even persuaded to play a hand drum in the two medieval items: a nice touch!

Each half of the concert began strikingly with one of two settings of medieval verse, in medieval style, by the Australian singer and composer David Yardley. “A domusday we schull ysee”, a rousing piece on the appropriate Advent theme of the Second Coming of Christ, was sung with tremendous drive and bright tone, and I was impressed by the choir’s authentic pronunciation of the Middle English text.

As always, under the inspiring leadership of Musical Director Crispin Lewis, the choir coped extraordinarily well with the contrast between their large soprano and alto sections, and the small minority of male singers, producing a convincingly balanced sound throughout the evening.

Next in the programme came four choruses from Handel’s MESSIAH ,the first two setting Old Testament prophecy of the coming of The Messiah, the third, “For unto us a child is born”, marking the birth of Jesus, and the last setting the Gospel account of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. The choir excelled in the exhilarating semiquaver runs contained in two of these numbers – Handel based this music on two Italian duets which he had already composed – striking a nice balance between complete detachment of the notes and unrelenting legato.

The singers were constantly alive to the meaning of the words, and full marks go to the soprano section for their ensemble performance of the recitative introducing the last chorus. After this I can only hope that a “complete” performance of Handel’s most famous oratorio may be in the Society’s plans.

In complete contrast the first half ended with a glowing performance by the Bridgetower Trio of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E flat, Op. 70 No.2 This four-movement work has, unusually, a rather fast set of variations in place of the expected slow movement. The minuet-like third movement contains some particularly sublime music, preceding a truly joyful finale. Frankly, I was bowled over by the quality of the playing, and audience reaction was again enthusiastic.

And the second half? David Yardley’s “Letabundus Exultet” sets a text partly in Latin and partly in Middle English – as often happened in the Middle Ages. Again it drew very rhythmic singing from the choir, who then gave us three choruses from Haydn’s great oratorio THE CREATION. Here, too, semiquaver runs were despatched with confidence and brio. In the final chorus, “The heavens are telling”, guest soprano Madeleine Ladell led a trio of mellifluous (but unnamed) singers, contrasting beautifully with the main chorus, as Haydn intended.

Returning to the Christmas theme, the choir then contributed a generally excellent performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin, composed when Britten was only sixteen years old. It is no mean feat for an amateur choir to manage a sophisticated, unaccompanied piece for double chorus so well.

To bring the evening to a rousing conclusion, the Bridgetower Trio gave us some deliciously jazzy arrangements of Christmas favourites, and we were all invited to join in “Ding! Dong! Merrily on high”.

Thank you, Thurrock Choral Society, for a truly memorable evening.

Richard Wade


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