Concert Reviews

Review of Christmas Concert 2017

Your reviewer had literally to tramp through snow and ice - and catch a lift from a choir member - to get to Baslow Choir’s Christmas Concert in Curbar Church. But it was worth the effort. The well-chosen medley of carols and readings, interspersed with the liquid sound of Plague o’ Bells and whoops of pleasure from an appreciative audience, were an appropriate way in which to start the Christmas 2017 festivities. The leavening provided by the interval wine and mince pies added to the seasonal spirit.

Mendelssohn’s Christus, an unfinished oratorio published after the composer’s untimely death, was the main choral piece in the first half. Members of the choir supplied the recitative and trio parts (melodiously sung by Janet Tipper, Brian Shaw, Robert Wright and Peter Skinner) and the full choir followed with a rousing chorus culminating in a marvellous Lutheran-style chorale which Mendelssohn had adapted from a composition by Nicolai. It made the listener wonder what might have been had Mendelssohn completed it. Seasonal carols, several of them arrangements by David Willcocks with others written or arranged by John Rutter and, in the case of two of the works, by the choir’s energetic conductor and music director, Andrew Marples (notably his lovely There is no Rose) accounted for the bulk of the choral element of the evening. The Willcocks arrangement of The Infant King and Reginald Jacques’ arrangement of Away in a Manger were very special, as were the challenging rhythms of John Rutter’s celebrated Shepherd’s Pipe Carol. New to your reviewer were three delightful Derbyshire carols. The excellent programme notes explained that two of the carols were once popular in Derbyshire pubs! The choir was in good voice throughout and - so important because this communicates itself to the audience - obviously enjoying it all.

Plague o’ Bells always please with the mellifluous sound of their many handbells and their marvellous technique. The physical energy and intense concentration required of the dozen or so performers is quite something to watch. The ensemble provided two selections of delightful and very varied pieces. The pleasure they give never wearies.

David Skinner and Brian Shaw delivered the readings (each with a keen sense of timing) and Chris Flint provided the piano accompaniment. Andrew Cummings was the organist and, as Andrew Marples mentioned, had to coax some very delicate playing out of an instrument designed only for hymns and psalms. Both instrumentalists were more than equal to the task.

Last a word of praise for members of the audience. When invited to participate - there were three opportunities to do so - they responded with gusto and the church was filled with sound. With the choir in full voice and the organ stops pulled out this was was community singing at its joyous best.

William Blackburne    11.xii.2017

Review of Summer Concert 2017

It is some time since your reviewer last attended a concert by the Baslow Choir. What better re-acquaintance could there be than at the choir’s summer gathering in lovely St Anne’s Church in Baslow itself? In the intervening period the choir has gained in self-confidence and togetherness. Heads are not buried in the music but watching the conductor and evidently enjoying the opportunity to make music and give pleasure to their audience. Especially noteworthy, since this is where amateur choirs are so often lacking, was the contribution by the tenors led by Glyn Herron.

The programme was a clever mixture of classical and modern, serious and sentimental, light and folksy. Rhythmically varied with some of the songs demanding (and receiving) much rhythmic and dynamic agility, the pieces ranged from a rousing opening chorus from Smetana’s Bartered Bride to Sibelius’s stirring Finlandia theme (sung to Be still, my soul) and included such favourites as Down by the Sally Gardens and I do like to be beside the seaside. A little known and jolly work was the American Patsy Ford Simms’s African-style Amani Utope. Well known musicals featured in the second half with excerpts from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair and The Sound of Music and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from the other side of the Atlantic, and coming a little nearer home, from Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables. Altogether a rich mix, with some Bob Chilcott and even a piece by Sting, to add yet more musical variety to the occasion.

The guest contributions were provided by Nigel and Hannah Johnson. Gorgeously attired in a shimmering light green dress, Hannah sang several solos. She also accompanied the choir in their concluding medley from Les Misérables. Although not powerful, Hannah’s voice has great purity of tone - at times sounding almost like a treble - and with perfect pitch when reaching for her top notes. The highlight was her singing of Summer Time from Porgy and Bess followed closely by Think of Me from Phantom of the Opera. This is not to underestimate her moving performance of the Agnus Dei from Mozart’s Coronation Mass and an equally expressive rendition of I know that my Redeemer Liveth from Handel’s Messiah or her performance of the other pieces in her programme. Hannah’s father, Nigel, accompanied her on the organ for the classical works and, for his solo turn, played one of J. S. Bach’s great organ works, the Fantasia in G with its extraordinary and thrilling opening and closing sequences - each requiring enormous keyboard dexterity. This was a bold choice to include in what was otherwise a potpourri of popular classics and songs drawn from the lighter end of the musical spectrum.

Carol Reid provided the piano accompaniment and won deserved applause for the skill with which she did so. When not playing the piano, Carol tip-toed over to join the altos of the choir. As ever, Andrew Marples not only guided the choir with his usual vigour and attention to detail but also provided a light-hearted and informative commentary on what the choir was about to sing. He even managed to get the audience to join in the final chorus of that old American favourite, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

It was still light when the concert ended although it was almost 10pm. What a nice way it had been to celebrate a balmy summer’s evening!

William Blackburne

Review of Spring Concert 2017

Judas Maccabeus at Edensor

In the 46 years since its foundation Baslow Choir has never previously performed Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabeus. Perhaps the reason lay in the obscurity of its subject. On Saturday evening, by serendipitous chance on the precise anniversary of the work’s premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre on April 1st, 1747, the omission was righted and the choir’s performance at St Peter’s Church in Edensor revealed enchanting music every bit as enjoyable as anything its composer wrote.

The oratorio’s best known chorus ‘See the conquering hero comes…’  has been argued to have had topical relevance in celebrating the Duke of Cumberland’s victory at Culloden the previous year but the story it tells is more venerable, from the 160s BC, its characters drawn from the remote reaches of the Old Testament Apocrypha. It seems inauspicious yet Handel injects librettist Thomas Morell’s concise narrative with drive and purpose, though in truth the narrative matters little, being merely a line to hang a string of choral and vocal jewels on. In the airs at times even words themselves cease to matter much as Handel distorts and stretches syllables and vowels over extended runs of repeated notes designed to offer his soloists maximum opportunity to display their virtuosity; there is little doubt that singers of his day exulted in such competitive rivalry.

It was an invitation seized with panache and flair by soprano Rachel Abbott who trilled seemingly endless vowels with relish yet still building, with a delightful twinkle in her eye, to the resounding climax in which the sense of the words clearly does matter again, notably in the air ‘From mighty kings he took the spoil…’. Hers was a bravura performance throughout, delivered with élan and infectious enthusiasm.

Indeed, all the soloists rose to the considerable challenges Handel sets them. In the duet ‘Come, ever-smiling liberty…’ Rachel was joined by mezzo Kate Huddie in a lovely interweaving of melodic lines, Handel, as ever, investing minimum words with musical treasures in many notes. Equally imposing was bass Daniel Sumner who brought compelling depth to the majesty of tone required by lines like ‘The Almighty Jehovah will strengthen your hands.’ He too tackled with clear enjoyment extended warbling on ‘wonders’ and ‘glories’ in the air ‘The Lord worketh wonders…’   Tenor Stewart Campbell sang the part of the eponymous Judas with growing conviction, delivering the work’s second-most celebrated air with substantial pomp and flourish; those singers performing with an orchestra have striking trumpet support at this point but Stewart, with the energetic backing of organist Andrew Cummings, achieved the urgency necessary to ‘sound an alarm’. The fifth soloist, counter-tenor Nick Cox, brought a sure touch of line and diction to enliven the narration leading to the choral extravaganza of ‘See the conquering hero…’

As in the other chorus sections the choir here demonstrated its confidence and ability under the quietly restrained direction of Andrew Marples to bring a professional finish to Handel’s sometimes complex and demanding writing with all sections managing to range from hushed emotion to declamatory climax, all voices satisfyingly balanced in this beautiful church’s excellent acoustic.

A jewel of a performance in a jewel of the Peaks: it is to be hoped that a reprise will not have to wait before another half century has elapsed. Or perhaps they may choose to lift other worthy oratorios from relative obscurity. When they do, don’t miss it.

Alan Shutt 4/4/17