17th November 2018.  Vivaldi Gloria, Allegri Miserere, Astorga Stabat Mater, Pergolesi Magnificat, Corelli Trumpet Sonata in D

There was a packed church in South Petherton for the South Somerset Choral Society autumn concert: a programme of some well known Baroque works and an almost unknown piece which turned out to be a real gem!

The opening Magnificat, generally attributed to Pergolesi but now known to have been composed by Francesco Durante, provided a rousing start to the evening. The piece contains a pleasing mix of solos, duets and chorus numbers, which showed the choir at their spirited best and also introduced some of the young soloists who were to prove such a treat. The duet sung by tenor (Kieran White) and bass (Rupert Reid), for example, was beautifully phrased and their clarity of tone and accuracy of pitching exemplified the standard of the solo singing throughout the evening. The balance between choir and orchestra was well judged and the raising of the gentlemen to the higher seats behind the ladies possibly helped to project their lines effectively, despite their smaller numbers. The contrapuntal entries in the final chorus were confident and provided a fitting climax to the final Amen.

The colourful life of the unfamiliar composer Baron d’Astorga was explored in the excellent programme notes provided by conductor, Tim Donaldson. A contemporary of Bach and Handel, his Stabat Mater was one of the most frequently performed pieces of the 18th century before it fell out of fashion. Its resurrection is long overdue and the sinuous melodic lines and expressive chromatic writing effectively convey the torment of Mary expressed in the text. Such chromatic writing needs great clarity and accuracy of pitching and it took the choir a little while to settle comfortably into the opening movement. Their singing soon became more confident with some well-projected contrapuntal entries in the Eja Mater and more accurate intonation in this less chromatic movement. Five of the nine movements featured the soloists in various combinations, all of which were delivered with superbly sensitive musicianship - it would be hard to find fault with any of them. The final choral movement resists the usual temptation to end with a loud Amen and the choir displayed good control as it brought the work to its fitting peaceful conclusion with a warm, well-balanced and well-controlled final cadence.

Part Two began with the Miserere by Allegri. The soloists sang from the side chapel, giving an interesting spaciousness to the performance. Simple sounding music often takes great skill to deliver and singing plainsong with large numbers of singers is always risky. This was not the choir’s finest few minutes (!) and there were intonation issues in what was effectively unaccompanied singing, but they are to be congratulated for tackling a work that clearly took them out of their comfort zone. The piece is always worth hearing, the quartet of soloists was excellent and the glorious ‘top Cs’ were impeccably delivered by soprano, Emilia Morton.

The purely instrumental Sonata for trumpet and strings by Corelli ,was skilfully played by David Bertie. Not the most exciting of pieces, this was a sequence of 5 short movements, but it nevertheless left one wanting to hear more of his seemingly effortless technique and bright Baroque sound.

Vivaldi’s well-known Gloria provided an effective conclusion to this varied programme. The choir relaxed into this more familiar territory and really sang well throughout.Their energetic singing in the opening movement, was followed by well-sustained chromatic lines in the Et in Terra Pax. The familiar Laudamus Te was superbly sung by sopranos Emilia Morton and Ruth Provost and the latter provided perhaps the most serene moments of the evening in the Dominus Deus, complemented by a beautiful oboe solo (Laura Manning). The alto soloist (Bethany Horak-Hallett) was particularly impressive in this piece, her rich tone, beautiful phrasing and an effortless sounding technique allowing one to simply sit backand enjoy the music.

There was great variety within this programme of Baroque music. Familiar music is often more difficult to perform than the listener might imagine and the choir is to be congratulated for their performance overall. There was some lovely individual playing from the orchestra, which was always supportive of the singers, and the soloists were a real treat.
The audience quite rightly rewarded all performers with generous and prolonged applause.
Congratulations to all concerned.

Paul Broom




18th March 2018 Rutter, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak and Fauré

"Challenges Well Met"

It was gratifying to see a full house for this concert by the South Somerset Choral Society in St. Mary’s, Chard – the threat of more wintry weather was no deterrent.  The programme picked by musical director Tim Donaldson was a demanding one, but he and SSCS rose to the occasion, supported by two very fine soloists.  A small but skilful orchestra was led by Jane Margeson.

First we heard Vaughan Williams’ setting of poetry by George Herbert – the ‘Five Mystical Songs’ of 1911.  This gave baritone soloist Jake Muffett his chance to establish his credentials, and he did so straight away.  His phrasing was elegant and assured and his diction exemplary – he did take a few minutes to even out his sound quality across the lower and upper registers, but his singing was always expressive.  I was particularly struck by the way he contrasted “Love” (God) and “Guest” (Mankind) in the third song – his control of the timbres was lovely, as was his handling of dynamic contrasts in the fourth. 

The contribution by the chorus in these songs was a little on the muted side.  I don’t know enough about the acoustics of St. Mary’s, but their sound was a little less than I would have expected from such a large ensemble.  At the start they dragged very slightly behind Tim’s beat, but soon they were in their stride.  The ensemble sound at the end of the second song (“Love got me Flowers”) was very impressive.  The last song in the set (“Let All the World”) is chorus alone and the upper voices rang out splendidly.  Overall I felt the choir could have put a bit more energy into the piece but the result was a fitting conclusion.

The Fauré Pavane is a well known piece, and has been arranged and orchestrated in a huge number of ways over the years.  Perhaps one of its less well known versions is the one with a choral element, with a sad text on the romantic helplessness of man.  A pavane is a courtly dance – Tim took it quite slowly, but perhaps appropriately for this arrangement.  The choir’s sound was lovely, with a wistful tone and very good ensemble in the opening slow section.  They slightly lost cohesion in the more declamatory phrases, but overall it was for me a good introduction to a less familiar version of a well-known work.

To bring us up to the interval we heard the setting of the ‘Te Deum’ by Dvořák.  Like so much of his music it is scored for quite large ensembles and the orchestra did a great job, sounding like a group twice their size!  Special congratulations to the percussion section for their huge and important contribution.

This work introduced us to the second soloist, soprano Alison Ponsford-Hill.  In the ‘Sanctus’ we heard absolutely spot-on intonation, rising beautifully above the orchestra – just the right kind of sound for the music.  Until she had warmed up I felt that we could have done with a little more vocal colour and variety, but I truly enjoyed what she did here and later.  The chorus was in good form and they blended well with the rustic woodwinds.  Jake came back in the ‘Tu Rex Gloria’ and was declamatory and exciting, sounding really thrilled by the whole thing.  The chorus contribution was slightly less forthright, but this was not out of keeping with the context.  In the ‘Aeterna fac’ each section proclaimed the words with great feeling over the very busy strings to good effect – the very tricky timing of the ‘Rege Eos’ entries was well done. 

Alison’s ‘Dignare Domine’ soared out beautifully over the texture – I would have preferred a little more vibrato but the certainty of her pitching removed any risk of it sounding harsh.  The duet between her and Jake (‘Benedicamus’) was beautifully balanced despite the voices being of such differing timbres.  The concluding ‘Alleluia’ brought all the forces into play, Alison giving it her all, the chorus singing their hearts out and the orchestra going berserk – lovely!

John Rutter is a national treasure, and his output covers a huge range of styles, from simple carols to very large choral and orchestral works.  His 1990 setting of the ‘Magnificat’ brought the evening to a close and a very successful one it was. 

The opening is a real foot-tapper – religious music can be fun you know!  I have heard it taken a little faster than Tim’s tempo, but it still sounded fine.  Again, the chorus lagged slightly behind the beat at the start, but were soon back on track.  The notoriously difficult ‘Omnes generationes’ entry did cause a bit of a problem, but overall this started well.  I loved the second movement ‘Of A Rose’ – the ladies started it off beautifully and the interplay between the various sections of the choir was well controlled, the ensemble maintained throughout, in this and the following number.

Alison’s performance of the ‘Et Misericordia’ was lovely – she came through the texture clearly without sounding too dominant and the choir were at their best.  Later too, in the ‘Esurientes’ she gave a really lovely performance, the timbre of her voice being just right for this music.  In this section the choral contribution was excellent, as was the particularly fine woodwind playing. 

In the finale the choir did not start off as powerfully and confidently as it might have done, but the subsequent build up to the end went very well and we had a properly satisfying climax to the work and to the whole evening.  This was a very enjoyable night – Tim and his forces are to be congratulated on tackling such a mixed programme and doing it well.  I would only say to the chorus – you can make a great sound, do it with more confidence!

 Harold W. Mead