18th March 2018 Rutter, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak and Fauré

"Challenges Well Met"

It was gratifying to see a full house for this concert by the South Somerset Choral Society in St. Mary’s, Chard – the threat of more wintry weather was no deterrent.  The programme picked by musical director Tim Donaldson was a demanding one, but he and SSCS rose to the occasion, supported by two very fine soloists.  A small but skilful orchestra was led by Jane Margeson.

First we heard Vaughan Williams’ setting of poetry by George Herbert – the ‘Five Mystical Songs’ of 1911.  This gave baritone soloist Jake Muffett his chance to establish his credentials, and he did so straight away.  His phrasing was elegant and assured and his diction exemplary – he did take a few minutes to even out his sound quality across the lower and upper registers, but his singing was always expressive.  I was particularly struck by the way he contrasted “Love” (God) and “Guest” (Mankind) in the third song – his control of the timbres was lovely, as was his handling of dynamic contrasts in the fourth. 

The contribution by the chorus in these songs was a little on the muted side.  I don’t know enough about the acoustics of St. Mary’s, but their sound was a little less than I would have expected from such a large ensemble.  At the start they dragged very slightly behind Tim’s beat, but soon they were in their stride.  The ensemble sound at the end of the second song (“Love got me Flowers”) was very impressive.  The last song in the set (“Let All the World”) is chorus alone and the upper voices rang out splendidly.  Overall I felt the choir could have put a bit more energy into the piece but the result was a fitting conclusion.

The Fauré Pavane is a well known piece, and has been arranged and orchestrated in a huge number of ways over the years.  Perhaps one of its less well known versions is the one with a choral element, with a sad text on the romantic helplessness of man.  A pavane is a courtly dance – Tim took it quite slowly, but perhaps appropriately for this arrangement.  The choir’s sound was lovely, with a wistful tone and very good ensemble in the opening slow section.  They slightly lost cohesion in the more declamatory phrases, but overall it was for me a good introduction to a less familiar version of a well-known work.

To bring us up to the interval we heard the setting of the ‘Te Deum’ by Dvořák.  Like so much of his music it is scored for quite large ensembles and the orchestra did a great job, sounding like a group twice their size!  Special congratulations to the percussion section for their huge and important contribution.

This work introduced us to the second soloist, soprano Alison Ponsford-Hill.  In the ‘Sanctus’ we heard absolutely spot-on intonation, rising beautifully above the orchestra – just the right kind of sound for the music.  Until she had warmed up I felt that we could have done with a little more vocal colour and variety, but I truly enjoyed what she did here and later.  The chorus was in good form and they blended well with the rustic woodwinds.  Jake came back in the ‘Tu Rex Gloria’ and was declamatory and exciting, sounding really thrilled by the whole thing.  The chorus contribution was slightly less forthright, but this was not out of keeping with the context.  In the ‘Aeterna fac’ each section proclaimed the words with great feeling over the very busy strings to good effect – the very tricky timing of the ‘Rege Eos’ entries was well done. 

Alison’s ‘Dignare Domine’ soared out beautifully over the texture – I would have preferred a little more vibrato but the certainty of her pitching removed any risk of it sounding harsh.  The duet between her and Jake (‘Benedicamus’) was beautifully balanced despite the voices being of such differing timbres.  The concluding ‘Alleluia’ brought all the forces into play, Alison giving it her all, the chorus singing their hearts out and the orchestra going berserk – lovely!

John Rutter is a national treasure, and his output covers a huge range of styles, from simple carols to very large choral and orchestral works.  His 1990 setting of the ‘Magnificat’ brought the evening to a close and a very successful one it was. 

The opening is a real foot-tapper – religious music can be fun you know!  I have heard it taken a little faster than Tim’s tempo, but it still sounded fine.  Again, the chorus lagged slightly behind the beat at the start, but were soon back on track.  The notoriously difficult ‘Omnes generationes’ entry did cause a bit of a problem, but overall this started well.  I loved the second movement ‘Of A Rose’ – the ladies started it off beautifully and the interplay between the various sections of the choir was well controlled, the ensemble maintained throughout, in this and the following number.

Alison’s performance of the ‘Et Misericordia’ was lovely – she came through the texture clearly without sounding too dominant and the choir were at their best.  Later too, in the ‘Esurientes’ she gave a really lovely performance, the timbre of her voice being just right for this music.  In this section the choral contribution was excellent, as was the particularly fine woodwind playing. 

In the finale the choir did not start off as powerfully and confidently as it might have done, but the subsequent build up to the end went very well and we had a properly satisfying climax to the work and to the whole evening.  This was a very enjoyable night – Tim and his forces are to be congratulated on tackling such a mixed programme and doing it well.  I would only say to the chorus – you can make a great sound, do it with more confidence!

 Harold W. Mead

18th November 2017 Beethoven & Mozart

An evening of Mozart and Beethoven was the latest offering from the South Somerset Choral Society. It is easy to underestimate the demands of such a programme and conductor Tim Donaldson and the assembled forces are to be congratulated on how well they met these challenges in South Petherton Church on Saturday 18th November 2017

The concert began with Beethoven’s Mass in C, a middle period work, written when he was 26. Unusually the choir begins the Kyrie without the customary orchestral introduction and their confident sound set the tone for the evening, with an excellent rendition of the Gloria and strong choral entries in the central section of the Credo.  Solo contributions by soprano Sophie Gallagher and alto Sarah Denbee established the high quality of solo singing that featured throughout the evening. Edmund Hastings (tenor) and Jake Muffett (baritone) completed the quartet of soloists. When performing as individuals, all were able to deliver well shaped phrases with excellent diction and intonation, but this programme also demanded a great deal from them in terms of ensemble singing and in this respect the voices were well matched and there was a real sense of communication and interaction that led to a most satisfying, well-blended sound.

The highlights of the Mass came in the final movements. Although all was clearly not well in the orchestral introduction to the Sanctus, performers and conductor kept their nerve, the movement finished well and led to some beautiful singing from both soloists and choir in the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei.  The quiet ending to the work, which concluded the first half of the concert, was particularly effective.

In some respects it was a shame that the Beethoven was not placed in the second half of the concert as Mozart’s Regina Coeli (K108), that opened part two felt rather unsophisticated in comparison, with some rather formulaic choral writing – hardly surprising since it was the work of a 15 year old Mozart.  This was, however, an interesting inclusion displaying as it did, occasional flashes of a more mature Mozart, especially in the challenging solo writing for soprano that was admirably delivered by Sophie Gallagher.  Throughout this piece the orchestral accompaniment was slightly bottom heavy and overall the performance lacked a lightness of touch and ease of tempi that contributed to a slightly stolid performance, despite the excellent choral/solo singing and some enthusiastic “Allelujahs” from the choir at the end.

This was followed by his Vespers (K339), an altogether more mature and satisfying piece, although it was written when Mozart was still just 22 years old. The choral singing here was excellent overall, despite the occasional weak entry and some moments of dubious intonation. Nevertheless, the Beatus Vir really took off well with a sense of energy and some confidently managed syncopated entries.  The Laudate Pueri  featured some confident contrapuntal singing from the choir, with entries clearly heard, despite the perennial issue of  imbalance between upper and lower voice parts. The Laudate Dominum – the movement for which this piece is best known, was sublimely sung.  A well-controlled dynamic level and tastefully understated expression from the soprano soloist was sensitively accompanied by the choir, allowing the natural beauty of the music to speak for itself: a truly beautiful listening experience.

Managing the balance of choral and orchestral forces is always challenging. The small orchestra of strings, timpani and organ, was largely well balanced and sympathetically supported both choir and soloists.  Unfortunately, the absence of woodwind and brass timbres was an issue at times. Significant features of the music rely on a varied orchestral palette and where lines were covered by the organ alone, they lacked a crispness of articulation and variety of colour that left the overall sound feeling just a little bland and slightly “woolly” at times – not helped by occasional coordination issues between organ and orchestra. Compromises have to be made however and the evening was much enjoyed by the enthusiastic audience. Congratulations to all for a most enjoyable concert.    P Broom

18th March 2017 The Tithe Barn, Haselbury Mill

J S Bach:  B minor Mass (50th Anniversary concert)

For this special concert the South Somerset Choral Society plus a few guest singers numbered more than one hundred. They were supported by a professional orchestra and five young professional soloists in a performance of one of the great choral works, Mass in B minor by J S Bach.

From the opening Kyrie it was evident that the choir was well prepared for the challenges that lay ahead. The following Gloria was well sung and could perhaps be described in one word ‘glorious’ with good transition to the slower et in terra pax.

One of the soprano soloists [Gwen Martin] then sang Laudamus te in good style leading to the Gratias for the choir. It was difficult to hear the words in this section, possibly due to the acoustics of the venue.

After a duet for soprano [Alison Hill] and tenor [Edmund Hastings] soloists the Qui tollis for the choir was well sung with good attack and feeling for the words.

In the solos for alto [Kate Symonds-Joy] and bass [Jake Muffett] which followed there was an imbalance between soloists and orchestra, not unusual in the bass aria with the horn obligato set very high for a modern horn. This section of the Mass was completed with a spirited performance of the Cum Sancto Spiritu

The second half of the concert started with an affirmation of belief with the Credo followed by a well balanced duet for the two soprano soloists.

Et incarnatus est which followed is very often sung more lightly than the preceding sections but in this performance it was rather heavy in tone. This did not however distract from the wonderful et resurrexit and ensuing chorus.

The bass aria which followed was well sung by the soloist. Two more short sections of the Mass for choir were followed by the Sanctus. This big chorus was splendidly sung with not a hint of tiredness from a choir that had sung for most of the evening!

After two short Osannas before and after the Benedictus, well sung by the tenor soloist, there followed the Agnus Dei, given to the alto soloist and the work ended with a very well sung Dona nobis pacem.

This is a very large work requiring much vocal and physical stamina and the South Somerset Choral Society managed this superbly.

A memorable evening of choral music of which the choir and Musical Director [Tim Donaldson] should be very proud.

David L Mills