Saturday, 13 August 2022

Touch of raw passion propels choristers to another level

A PACKED Christ Church Centre saw the return of Henley Choral Society’s former musical director Will Dawes

A PACKED Christ Church Centre saw the return of Henley Choral Society’s former musical director Will Dawes to take part in an inspired collection of 20th century French choral repertoire directed by guest conductor Tom Edwards.

The latter brought with him a wide range of directing experience with choral groups and churches in Australia and the UK.

Richard Moore was the accomplished organ accompanist throughout, while solo mezzo-soprano Judy Brown joined Will Dawes for Duruflé’s Requiem, singing from the gallery above the stage.

As always with new blood a fresh approach is inevitable, and in maestro Edwards’s case his distinctive style of vocal performance was something to savour and admire.

The gentle tenor entry to Louis Vierne’s Kyrie Eleison, and the confident build-up thereafter invoked the Gallic mood perfectly.

It was followed by Déodat de Séverac’s Tantum Ergo, four motets by Maurice Duruflé, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Ave verum corpus, a second Vierne piece, Agnus dei, and, finally, Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, to complete the first half of the programme.

Most striking was how effortlessly the choir’s voices melded together, helped enormously by Edwards’ ultra-clear technique.

A case in point was the third vocal entry in the Fauré — so subtle were the altos that you were unaware of their presence until the volume grew. Séverac’s Tantum Ergo was similarly well controlled, exceptionally musically sung and memorable for its exquisite resolutions and cadences — testament to Edwards’ sensitive attention to detail.

Another revelation was the ‘a capello’ section in the Duruflé motet Tota pulchra es, employing just sopranos and altos. This was impressively disciplined, accurate singing in the absence of a supporting instrument.

Where the organ was used, not only was it well played and kept at a well-judged volume, but its soft, nasal timbre was the ideal complement to the programme’s French theme.

Benjamin Goodson, HCS’s outgoing conductor, did much to improve the singers’ voice quality. Tom Edwards, during his temporary brief tenure, has pushed this on to another level, enhancing it with tight precision, clear diction, wide variations in volume and intensity and a touch of raw passion.

Saint-Saëns’s Ave verum corpus, carefully moulded from beginning to end, was a microcosm of all of this; the choir sang as if they really cared. Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine was no less satisfying with its measured tempo and fine balance. The pieces were made all the more interesting through Edwards’ insightful and witty introductions.

Less accessible perhaps than the relatively more comfortable first half, but just as captivating, was Duruflé’s Requiem.

An ominous organ entry set the mood, followed by some positive, dynamic singing and Will Dawes’ first excellent solo.

The choir rose to a massive climax on the word “Hosanna” in the Sanctus, giving way to the Pie Jesu, confidently dispatched by Judy Brown.

The Libera Me, involving both Will Dawes and chorus, had it all: a magnificent opening, powerful solo baritone and a great deal of dramatic material representing the day of wrath. This eventually subsided as In Paradisum brought the work to a peaceful conclusion.

Henley Choral Society’s Christmas concerts will be held at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday, December 10, in St Mary’s Church, Henley. For membership enquiries, call (01491) 576929.

Review: Trevor Howell

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