Review: A memorable night of glorious English anthems

Eastbourne Choral Society SUS-170105-115215001
Eastbourne Choral Society SUS-170105-115215001

Eastbourne’s choral music-making is in vibrant health, and Eastbourne Choral Society filled All Saints Church last week with a wonderful Evening of English Music.

Good amateur choral societies generally have a repertoire of about a dozen major classic works – Messiah, the Bach Passions, the great Requiems and oratorios – with about two dozen more on the supporting list. The Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony is actually on neither list, demanding large resources, plenty of stamina and an awful lot of rehearsal time. Eastbourne Choral were undaunted, and pulled it off with great success.

The programme opened with Parry’s huge, stately Coronation anthem I Was Glad. John Hancorn’s nicely judged rendering contrasted its great climbing crescendos with its reverent, subdued ‘Pray For The Peace Of Jerusalem.’ The anthem was paired with Parry’s My Soul, There Is A Country, harmonically trickier but confidently sung, with a great sense of unity in its dramatic finale. Then, the first RVW of the evening – his O Clap Your Hands – sung here to the accomplished organ accompaniment of Nicholas Houghton.

These were genuinely among the great English anthems, and giving ample evidence, not only of the fine choral singing on offer, but of the quite superb Eastbourne Sinfonia, professionally assured and beautifully balanced, always supporting the singers but never intruding or overwhelming.

Nicholas was a busy chap, now forsaking the manuals for the podium and immaculately directing the orchestra in two much-loved Elgar pieces. Chanson du Matin was gorgeous: light as a summer morning, with delightful pizzicato strings, rippling harp, and orchestra leader Kate Comberti exquisite on the solo violin. Wonderful picture painting, and very English.

The brass and percussion had meanwhile – very courteously – waited their turn, and now in Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations, they were rich, warm and powerful. Houghton’s reading had splendid contrast, not building too soon and replacing the thunder of the final bars with a stillness and peace.

And so to the grand oeuvre. Vaughan Williams spent some six years writing his Sea Symphony, arguably his finest work and certainly a landmark. This performance was full of inspirational musicianship. I cannot ever imagine John Hancorn directing anything dispassionately or clinically: he is at one with his musicians, and they rise to his rising and falling baton. Both soloists were outstanding, Catrin Woodruff a thrilling, dramatic soprano and Adam Marsden a baritone with rich tone and great command.

The choir of almost 100 voices will have practised for weeks and months to achieve this performance, and achieve it they did. There was splendid clarity despite the sometimes cloudy texture of the music, there was excellent balance and tuning, and above all there was a oneness with the spirit of the music, its ebb and flow, and its lyrical and emotional range. A memorable night. By Kevin Anderson.