Choir singing in Royal Hall
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In Remembrance

The Royal Hall, Harrogate, 8 November 2014

In Remembrance flyer

Last Saturday I walked the walk – Elgars' Walk from Bog's Field to the Pump Room through the Valley Gardens to hear Harrogate Choral Society's concert "In Remembrance" in the Royal Hall.

Included was a little-known gem of Elgar's – Spirit of England. Yes, I am an Elgar fan and yes, he did write some tedious music. But not this piece. The settings of three Laurence Binyon (We will remember them) poems were beautifully sung by the chorus and Sarah Fox (soprano) with the Amici Ensemble under Andrew Padmore.

First performed in 1917, Spirit of England was a mature work of Elgar. It contains hints of Gerontius, the Violin Concerto and Enigma, and through it run the nobilmente cascades of sequences so richly scored by this master of orchestration.

The singers were most careful about the text: not a nuance was missed, not a marking of Elgar's overlooked. The words and music became one. Majestic passages in For the Fallen were forcefully declaimed and the sorrow in To Women tenderly sketched. And through it all the solo soprano soared and spun her web. The rich orchestral colours were realized by the augmented Amici Ensemble, with unison horns, solo oboe and cello particularly telling. Appropriate occasions to perform this work are limited which perhaps accounts for its unfamiliarity.

Haydn's Mass in Time of War of 1796 is quite different. It's sometimes known as the Kettledrum Mass because of the prominent timpani role (rolls!). As with the other five great mass settings of Haydn, it uses four soloists, choir and classical orchestra. Excepting the war-like motifs in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, the listener would assume it was just another of Haydn's joyful settings – which it is.

Choirs need to be very nimble to deliver the bounce and energy of this music and the Choral Society was a little large and lumbering to really excite. Sopranos were rarely quite up to the top notes and syncopations generally were unconvincing. The gaps between sections needed a little more time to breathe. For example, the start of the uplifting Et Resurrexit was muddled and the contrast with the previous section (dead and buried) lost.

The outer soloists – Sarah Fox and Phil Wilcox (bass) were characterful and Imogen Garner (mezzo) and Tim Kennedy (tenor) completed the ensemble. The bass soloist's Qui Tollis began with a fine cello solo which unfortunately sank below the weight of the texture. The final Dona Nobis Pacem was triumphantly delivered. Here is Haydn not asking for peace, but demanding it.

Audience participation closed the evening, with Sarah Fox leading the combined forces in several wartime favourites. And didn’t the orchestra enjoy the change of scene? We had trombones swinging it and even some tenors on the front row visibly jigging about! Whatever next: this is Harrogate after all. These were great arrangements and much enjoyed by everyone in the Hall.

But above all, thanks for the Elgar.

David Andrews