Review of Spring Concert: 21 April 2018 – Elgar, Puccini, Doyle
It had been a day of brilliant Spring sunshine. It was the Queen’s 92nd birthday and the setting was suitably majestic: the intimate, yet expansive and wonderfully illuminated nave of Sheffield Cathedral. There was a packed audience and the scene was set for an ambitious programme comprising two major and very contrasting choral works, flanked by a stirring introduction and a no less stirring conclusion. It fell to the combined forces – about 100 choristers – of the Baslow Choir and the Holymoorside Choral Society under the baton of their joint director, Andrew Marples, to deliver this musical feast. They were joined by three superb young soloists (what a coup to have secured their services!) and by Andrew Cummings at the organ and the 40 or so strong Hallam Sinfonia led by Alastair Wood.
The Music Makers which took up most of the first half is choral Elgar at his best, a match, many say, for his better known Gerontius. First performed only months before the start of the Great War, it is as if the composer presages the awfulness of what is to come, yet yearns for new beginnings. With its echoes from earlier compositions this demanding work is a series of linked musical essays into which the composer opens his soul. Sometimes the sound is reduced almost to a gentle hush and at others it rises to a glorious crescendo. It sets to music Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s mystical poem the overall mood of which is best captured by its opening words “We are the dream makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams….” The music requires large forces and much subtlety of tone. The combined choirs were equal to the task, as was the striking mezzo, Leeds-born Beth Moxon, whose strong voice and clear diction enabled her to rise above the tremendous wave of sound from choir and orchestra at her back. With a cathedral acoustic which seemed designed for the performance the audience caught its breath as the last words died away and all that was left was the dream.
Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, written when the composer was only 21, could not be more different. It is an operatic curtain raiser to the fabulous operas that were still some way off. More Verdi than later Puccini the work revels in melody and choral flights of fancy. Despite it solemn setting – the catholic mass – there are moments when the mood seems almost playful. The main focus of the work are a lengthy Gloria (which gives the work its name) and the Credo. The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are very brief by comparison but full of charm. “Charm” is not what one normally associates with the mass but this is Puccini, conscious of his skills and eager to show his audience of what he is capable. The two choirs seemed to revel in their participation in this joyous work and are to be congratulated for bringing it to our attention. In this they were assisted by two superbly self-confident soloists, with voices which seemed designed for the part: the bel canto tones of the tenor Andrew Henley and the rich and powerful baritone of Edmund Damon. This very early work deserves more outings.
The concert began and ended in ways that, although musically very different, were strangely, perhaps deliberately, connected. The Hallam Sinfonia ushered in the evening with a suitably sonorous rendition of Elgar’s intensely moving and ever-popular Nimrod – almost a national hymn these days – from his celebrated Enigma Variations. It is music that never fails to stir the soul. The evening ended with a joyful performance of a short contemporary work: Doyle’s Non Nobis Domine – celebrating the victory at Agincourt – from the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The two magnificent tenor and baritone soloists were in almost boisterous mood as, in a wonderfully balanced duet, with orchestra and massed choirs, they danced their way musically to a rousing climax of a truly memorable concert. The evening had started with solemnity; it ended with some joyous fizz. Your reviewer cannot wait for another such concert. Well done to all involved!