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Review: Thornbury Choral Society Concert, 19th May 2018

Prescience or happenstance? What better opening for Thornbury Choral Society’s Spring Concert, on the day of the Royal Wedding, than Parry’s monumental coronation anthem I was glad – a setting of Psalm 122? A fine and inspired choice it was, as the chorus tackled its robust character from the outset, with no time to ‘warm up’. The section divided into two choirs was especially effective, and the sopranos showed that the repeated top Bb’s were well within their grasp. The quiet central section (O pray for the peace of Jerusalem) was well nuanced – the altos, in particular, bring a subtle warmth of tone to their line. The slight drop in pitch going into this part did little to mar the beauty of Parry’s writing.  Altogether a most stirring and promising start to this concert.

In complete contrast there then came Cesar Franck’s Panis Angelicus. It is, of course, a hugely popular work and it was well sung and received, and was an interesting contrast with Parry’s very English style of writing. The contrast was even more marked by the inclusion, next, of Faure’s exquisite Cantique de Jean Racine. Here was French polish of the highest order: Faure’s gentle chromaticism and feel for understatement are hallmarks of his style, and combined with an unfailing sense of melodic invention, the Cantique is deservedly one of his most popular works.

The choir responded well to the mood of the piece and entries were generally secure.  The concluding pages, with their ‘squiffy’ chromatic chords, are always a challenge to choirs, and there was considerable groping for notes in the lower voices whilst the sopranos sailed serenely on to the hushed pianissimo ending. A very satisfying performance in the main, with the choir responding eagerly to conductor Stephen Kings’ directions, who elicited some finely controlled dynamics.

In further celebration of Parry, and whilst the choir took a deserved ‘breather’, the evening continued with a performance of his Fantasia and Fugue in G for organ. An electronic organ had been hired for the evening’s concert, and the organist tackled this hugely demanding work on a relatively small and inadequate instrument.  That the performance was utterly convincing and immensely impressive is due in no small measure to the astonishing virtuosity of organist James Drinkwater.

No ‘breather’ for James, as he launched into the last piece of the first-half – conductor Stephen Kings’ own Care-Charming Spells. Written to mark the choir’s 50th anniversary, it is a celebration of Music in three short poems by Herrick Sassoon and Tessimond. The style was challenging for the singers, many of whom had not sung it previously, yet they overcame most of the difficulties thrown at them with obvious enthusiasm. From the listener’s point of view, Stephen’s music comes across as easily accessible and enjoyable. The choir were joined in the performance by a chamber ensemble from the Thornbury Camerata which added yet another layer of enjoyment – particularly the significant contribution of harpist Kathryn Rees-Peak.

The entire second half of the concert was given over to John Rutter’s  Requiem, written in memory of the composer’s father. Conductor Stephen Kings really brought out the best of his choir in this work: the sombre opening had just the right degree of hushed anticipation (though again the lower voice parts had difficulty in precisely placing their notes). The main theme, announced by the sopranos, was a welcome diatonic contrast to the complex chromaticism of the opening and the choir were at ease with the remainder of this movement, as indeed they were in the following one – a setting of Psalm130 (Out of the deep).

Ruth Bamfield was a splendid choice of soprano soloist in Pie Jesu: her crystal-clear tone and total confidence in exposed passages were entirely appropriate for this music, and the choir responded well with their echoing answers to the soloist’s pleas.

The Sanctus was especially exciting with its tumult of canonical writing – all brought to a magnificent climax. The Agnus Dei which followed is an impressive piece of writing – mixing Latin text with Biblical passages. The relentless repetition of the Latin words built to a fine climax, with the choir divided into six parts, before subsiding to a most effective pianissimo ending.

Rutter again interpolates a psalm setting into the Latin Mass – this time as setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd). Here the angularity of themes previously heard is replaced by a flowing pastoral style, supported most effectively by a solo Oboe. The choir responded well to the music – seemingly at ease and at peace throughout.

The final movement, Lux aeterna, brings all the performers together – starting with yet more Biblical texts where, here again, soprano Ruth Bamfield was outstanding. The Latin text resumes and quietly recapitulates the Kyrie theme from the first movement to bring the work to a hushed conclusion.

Thornbury Choral Society are to be congratulated for having devised and performed such a first-class and enjoyable programme. Much credit must go to conductor Stephen Kings for his careful attention to detail and inspired leadership on the podium, but also to organist James Drinkwater for his excellent solo performance and sensitive accompanying throughout.

Chris Hill