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Review: Thornbury Choral Society Concert, 23rd November 2019

It was gratifying to be part of a near capacity audience for the Thornbury Choral Society's concert of works by Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, all written in within a time span of some fifty years. Conductor Steven Kings must have been well pleased with the choir, who were confident and sensitive to the considerable demands of the programme.

Beginning with the little known “Tantum Ergo” set to music by Schubert in the last year of his short life, the opening of the work set the tone for the rest of the evening displaying an excellent balance between the choir, soloists and the orchestra with plenty of dynamic contrasts. As with the rest of the programme, the soloists sang mainly as a unit and the four voices blended superbly.

Having assembled such a fine orchestra, it was a good idea to allow them to perform an entire symphony. Mozart's “Paris” Symphony (no 31) was written when the composer was just twenty-two years old and its energy and verve were brought to life in a very neat, beautifully phrased performance, where the skilful playing was much appreciated by the audience.

The first part of the programme concluded with Schubert's Magnificat in C  written in 1816. This is the only setting of these words by the composer. Again there was a very polished performance from the choir and soloists with subtle support from the orchestra. In the middle section (Deposuit potentes de sede) the soprano (Mary Pope) had a more prominent role than the other soloists, and this was achieved effortlessly.

The second part of the programme was given over to Beethoven's Mass in C (op86). A work  which is often overlooked in preference to the Missa Solemnis. However, it is no small-scale work and, as in all Beethoven's choral music, much stamina is needed in performance. Here the choristers distinguished themselves; especially the sopranos who, it seemed, spent many bars on to G's and A's! The opening Kyrie Eleison begins with unaccompanied basses, and the first line with its rather gentle ascending and falling thirds soon becomes far more chromatic. There is an air of restlessness in Beethoven's supplication with many extremes of dynamic before the movement ends quietly.

The Gloria begins with a blaze of colour and the kettle drums certainly made their presence felt.  The mezzo-soprano (Holie-anne Bangham) began the section “qui tollis peccata mundi “ and it seemed as though some of her vowel sounds did not quite match the words at this point, unlike the solo tenor (Daniel Joy) whose “gratias agimus tibi” was audible to all. The final section is a big sing for the chorus (and there was no sign of flagging!) before the soloists intersperse various “Amens” bringing this fine movement to a joyful conclusion.

The Credo is a lengthy movement which begins very quietly in unison and crecendos to four part harmony for the words “in unum deum” (in One God), after which Beethoven plays around with various textures accompanied by some interesting effects from the orchestra. The soloists sing the “et incarnatus est”, and the “crucifixus” section which follows is boldly declaimed, as indeed are the words “et sepultus est” where the chromatic harmony is a particular feature. The bass soloist ( Phil Wilcox) gave a fine declamation at the opening of the resurrection section  and the chorus was soon back to fortissimo. At “qui locutus est per prophetas” (who spake by the prophets) the powerful unison singing was underpinned by  the full orchestra which, even in the dead acoustic of the hall, was spine-tingling. The final section of this movement is an elaborate Amen which is shared between chorus and soloists. The interplay between the three forces choir, soloists and orchestra made for fascinating listening.

The Sanctus began quietly with well-judged dynamics from the choir in their unaccompanied singing. The shortest of all the movements, “pleni sunt caeli “ is taxing to sing, and the small number of tenor choristers did themselves proud. The Benedictus is a lengthy movement beginning with unaccompanied soloists and  continuing with overlapping chorus and solo sections which were  beautifully managed.

The final movement, Agnus Dei, unlike so many settings of the words, did not give the choir a restful finale! In true Beethoven manner, the variety of textures in a relatively short time is truly amazing with the words “dona nobis pacem” being passed between soloists and choir. The music eventually ends quietly recalling the opening Kyrie.

We are very fortunate to have such a fine choir in Thornbury and, on this occasion, supported by an equally fine orchestra. It was to the credit of all the performers that everything came together so well on just one afternoon rehearsal on the day of the concert. Much of the credit  for this must go to Steven Kings whose fussless and dynamic direction inspired confidence in the performers allowing them to give of their very best.

I am sure that the officers of the Thornbury Choral Society are grateful for the use of the acoustically dead Castle School Hall, but while enjoying the feast of music detailed above, I wondered why Thornbury still has not got a proper concert hall/arts centre.................…

                                                                 Nigel Davies