French Connections – A review

A voyage by the good ship “The Elgar Chorale”

Review:  “French Connections” – The Elgar Chorale, Worcester Baptist Church – 09.03.19                                                                                                                                                     

Given the impending Brexit situation, it was a relief to find the good ship ”Elgar Chorale”- under the navigation of its excellent captain, Piers Maxim – steering a steady course through the English Channel of Berkeley and Vaughan Williams towards the French countryside of Debussy, Durufle, Faure and Ravel.

The journey started with Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orleans. The first of these unaccompanied songs made a good opening piece and had lovely nuances in dynamics, tempi and fluidity in the melodic lines, which flowed gently.  The men sounded a little tentative at the start of the second song and, at times, the choir slightly overwhelmed the soloist. The third song had a strong, dramatic start – hemiola rhythms and imitative entries were well controlled and the choir produced a polished sound.

After the French ‘hors d’oeuvre’ Vaughan Williams provided a moment of English refreshment in the form of his Three Shakespeare Songs. Full fathom five had some lovely contrasting coloratura, clear diction and neat choral tintinnabulations evoking the sound of bells. The cloud-capp’d towers enjoyed a nicely judged tempo, which enabled the choir to display some very expressive legato singing and the harmonic challenges were well-handled. Over hill, over dale was full of ‘joie de vivre’ and mellifluous singing with excellent chording and diction.

Peter Shepherd made a welcome return as soloist and accompanist. He played Recit de Nazard by Clerambault on the organ, in which he demonstrated precise articulation, neat ornamentation and a variety of registration.

Quatre Motets by Durufle enabled the choir to display some fine singing – notably the female voices in Tota pulchra es  which had contrasting dynamics, clear diction and excellent ensemble and Tantum ergo benefitted from a well-measured tempo, legato phrases and a chorale-like tune, under which the accompaniment ebbed and flowed.

Lennox Berkley’s The Lord is my shepherd began with soprano soloist, Megan Wall, setting the mood from the start. Her lovely, clear-toned voice led into the dramatic entry by the choir. Peter Shepherd supported with sympathetic organ accompaniment and the whole performance was very sensitive, lyrical and controlled.

Four excerpts from Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams, enabled soloists from within the choir to display some fine singing – notably Rebecca Caskie and Peter Crookall. The overall effect was very moving with some lovely undulation in the underlying counterpoint and nicely judged dynamics. There were, however, one or two moments of uncertainty – especially in the Gloria. The Agnus Dei was a particular highlight, displaying some beautifully sustained singing and well controlled harmonic shifts.

Trois Chansons by Ravel could fairly be described as a setting of nonsense songs. The dialogue, which alternated mostly between male and female voices, was interpreted well and ranged from coarse, rough and nasal, sustained, slow and melismatic to lively, neat and busy!

Faure was represented by two pieces, the first of which, Madrigale, is an argument between the men and women. It was lilting, fast and had a good balance of dynamics. Pavane has one of Faure’s most hauntingly beautiful melodies and it was sung with style and panache.  Peter Shepherd’s piano accompaniment was exemplary and displayed great musicality.

An organ solo, Pavane by William Byrd, gave the choir an opportunity to gather all their strength for the final piece, A Festival Anthem by Berkeley. This work, which is in three sections, had a variety of ingredients – two soloists and choir, wide ranging dynamics, accompanied and a cappella singing, strong organ accompaniment and a huge climax before ending quietly.

All in all, I am pleased to report the voyage was enjoyable, that Piers Maxim successfully guided the good ship “Elgar Chorale” magnificently and that her crew and passengers landed happily and safely at the end of an exciting journey.

James Morgan