2018 St Cecilia concert review

A SAINT CECILIA CONCERT by BOTLEY CHORAL SOCIETY

The feast day of Cecilia, patron saint of music falls on November 22nd, and it was therefore appropriate for this concert, staged at a full All Saints’ Church, Botley on Sunday 25th November, to be celebrated in her honour. The first half was dedicated to works by Vaughan Williams, namely Serenade to Music and Five Mystical Songs and Haydn’s Nelson Mass completed the programme.

Serenade to Music was composed in 1938 in honour of Sir Henry Wood, who conducted the Proms for almost 50 years, and also pays tribute to Shakespeare by adapting to music a poetic discussion about music from Act V Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice. Originally written for 16 solo singers, four each of soprano, contralto and tenor, and two each of baritone and bass, it was later arranged for chorus, soloists and orchestra.

After a long organ introduction, taken at walking pace, the choir entered quietly and sang in different parts and harmonies, repeating frequently the word “sweet”, most appropriate to the sweet harmony in which the choir was singing, and the words “ soft stillness”, reflecting the mood of the music. The soloists took over to sing their respective parts with clarity, and at a volume which blended with and did not overwhelm the choir. The soprano soloist and choir concluded the piece quietly.

Five Mystical Songs was first performed in 1911 and is a setting to music of poems written by George Herbert in the early 17th Century. Although at the time an avowed atheist, Vaughan Williams loved the language of the King James Bible, and was inspired by the visionary qualities of religious verse, such as that of Herbert. This is apparent from the content of the pieces, such as the first, which is titled “Easter” and the third and fifth which respectively contain extracts from church liturgy and a well known hymn.

The first four pieces gave prominence to the baritone soloist, who was accompanied by the choir at intervals. That accompaniment was formed by beautifully blended harmony, which fitted together like a finely cut jigsaw, with all pieces perfectly placed. Those pieces were sung at a moderate, sometimes majestic pace, and the final piece, which was performed by the choir alone contrasted by finishing loudly and exultantly.

Joseph Haydn was called upon in 1798 to compose a new Mass to be celebrated at the Esterhazy court in Vienna. At that time, he was confined by his doctor to his room, exhausted by the task of completing and premiering “The Creation”. Furthermore, Napoleon had defeated the Austrian army in four major battles, was threatening Vienna itself, where there was a general air of panic and despondency. Initially, Haydn titled the work “Mass for Troubled Times”, but as he penned it, and unknown to him, Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Reports of Nelson’s triumph reached Vienna around the time of the first performance of the Mass in September 1798. Thereafter, the Mass gradually acquired the title by which it is known today, and Napoleon’s defeat changed the way that the Mass was thenceforth heard, so that it became a depiction of danger and agitation supplanted by triumphant victory.

The Mass contains all the customary components of a work of that nature, with a variety of tone, pace and rich harmony and this performance gave everything that could be expected from such a magnificent work, which one leading biographer of Haydn has described as his “greatest single composition”. The choir rose to the occasion, with crisp entries, clarity of diction and tone, and a unity of performance to the extent that it was hard to believe that this is not a professional ensemble, but a group of enthusiastic people who love to sing together.

The concert was enhanced by the very talented soloists, who sang with their customary precision and clarity. Helen Bailey (soprano), Marie-Anne Hall (contralto) and Adrian Green (tenor) are already well known to supporters of Botley Choral Society, and their performances were matched by Andrew de Silva (bass-baritone) singing with the choir for the first time. His voice is rich, warm and velvety, a real delight and drew acclaim from the audience, who look forward to his future performances with the choir.

Accompaniment was given on the organ by Mark Dancer, whose standards of performance are constantly excellent, and form a pivotal part of many of the concerts.

As always, special thanks are due to David Burgess for his choice of such an interesting programme, and for guiding the choir to such standards of excellence. One member of the audience was heard to say to him “David, this is your best concert yet”. Few, if any, of those present would disagree!