Eastbourne Choral Society’s return is "exquisite"

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 3:05 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2021, 3:27 pm
Eastbourne Choral Society

Too long, too long. Not the length of Eastbourne Choral Society’s exquisite concert at All Saints Church last week, but the aching year and a half of silence.

The Wretched Virus has kept us all apart, in employment and travel and social contact – and for Eastbourne Choral, in the simple joy of meeting to make music. The Society resumed this term, working towards a Bach St John Passion in the Spring, and meanwhile delighting a well filled All Saints with Handel’s Messiah Part One and Rutter’s Magnificat.

Eastbourne’s MP Caroline Ansell joined the audience, as did Mayor Pat Rodohan, with their spouses: demonstrating again that official duties may also be personal pleasures. Wonderful to have their active support. Eastbourne’s choral singing demographic is relatively mature, and relatively cautious. ECS do report that most members have returned, although some are choosing to wait a little longer.

So singers were slightly fewer than the Choir has sometimes numbered – but then, we have long since passed the Huddersfield Choral era of massed ranks and huge sounds. And we are probably closer to the work’s origins: after all, that first Dublin performance in 1742 was achieved with a choir of 32. Baroque music needs precision, flexibility, clarity; and that is exactly what Eastbourne Choral delivered.

Dispensing this time with an orchestra, John Hancorn called on Nicholas Houghton for expert organ accompaniment and continuo. As a director John exudes authority and a genial confidence – captured utterly by the choir. Their opening chorus And the Glory of the Lord was a dance in three – a dialogue with courtesy between voices.

All four soloists were outstanding. Young tenor Kristian Thorkildsen, whose Comfort Ye My People must set the tone for the whole performance, had beautiful lyricism and effortless control. Oh – and what a lovely touch, his solo duties over, to join the ranks of the chorus. No hierarchies here, only the shared joy of performing.

Kristian’s counterpart Andrew Robinson, eloquent baritone rather than basso profundo, brought drama to the texts: “I will shake the Heavens and the Earth”. Mezzo Claire Gale in Who May Abide ached with emotion and intensity. And her He Shall Feed His Flock duet with crystal-clear soprano Imogen Moore was exquisite. There are moments in great music when the sound seems simply to lift, and touch the intangible, and this was one.

Choir diction and expression were outstanding throughout, even at the rattling tempo of the choruses; and above all, we were hearing a story unfolded for us, which has resonance for our own times. “Darkness shall cover the Earth… They that walk in the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” This was music to move to tears.

And we still had a second half to enjoy. In a modern musical era where many composers only seem to seek the esoteric, John Rutter is the people’s composer. You always get a tune with Rutter, as the cliché goes, and his Magnificat is full of flowing, rippling lyricism.

It also has its surprises – changes of mood and musical style, which for this listener did not always work. The Magnificat text is interleaved with extra passages. Of a Rose, a Lovely Rose, has a medieval minor-key feel, with restrained dignified bare fifths. The Quia Fecit movement brings powerful crescendos followed by quiet humility. And soprano solos with snatches of plainsong alongside moments of dissonance. It is Rutter, but not as we thought we knew it.

A fascinating contrast, anyway, to the familiarity of Handel! And all delivered with dedication, sincerity and musical expertise. The last word should go to director John Hancorn, speaking after the performance:

“What a sheer joy to be singing again, and sharing the music again! But now, I am sure, we hear these words and this music again with fresh ears.”

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson