Epsom Choral Society gave us a night to remember at St Andrews Church in Cheam last Saturday. Their programme was an unusual and attractive coupling of works by Constant Lambert and David Fanshawe. In The Rio Grande, Lambert sets a poem by Sacheverell Sitwell for choir, two pianos and percussion, while in African Sanctus, written following visits to Africa in 1969, Fanshawe combines African sounds, both human and natural, with live musicians and a Latin Mass.
The concert got off to rousing start with the choir in fine voice, with plenty of rhythmic verve and effective dynamic contrasts throughout. It’s worth remembering, however, that in very soft passages articulation needs to be even crisper. I did also wonder whether there might have been slightly more sway and swagger in phrases such as “… they dance in the city, down the public squares…”. These are minor quibbles; the performance was as accomplished as one might expect.
Marion Lea, the choir’s regular accompanist, took the solo piano role, with its virtuosic cadenzas, while Peter Jaekel, a regular visitor, took the ‘orchestral’ part. Both pianists dealt expertly with the technical demands, and they displayed an excellent rapport. This was also apparent as two pianos became one for the three lollipops from Walton’s Façade suite, namely Polka, Popular Song and Foxtrot, hugely enjoyed by the sizeable audience. The first half ended with a brief introduction to African Sanctus by the late composer’s widow Jane Fanshawe. During her very informative words and photographs, conductor Julian Collings was presented with one of David Fanshawe’s trademark caps.
The second half of the concert was heralded by a mighty roar of “Sanctus” from the choir, accompanied by a full percussion ensemble. Having conducted this work myself many moons ago, I recall just how tricky it was to get all elements perfectly aligned – I wish I had had professional sound engineers such as the excellent team on Saturday! A mesmerising muezzin’s call to prayer got the next movement under way. Here the gorgeous blend of the voices produced some exquisite singing with perfect intonation. Other qualities such as stamina and staying power presented themselves in the next two movements. The call of the muezzin translates into the key of D, and as any soprano will tell you a very high D lies well out of the comfort zone so full marks to the sopranos here.
Following the Credo came Love Song, a tender and moving episode in which a cattle boy in East Sudan sings about a girl called Abdha. At the start of the movement, we hear a recording of a mother ringing tiny bells outside her tent in an ancient custom signifying the birth of a baby son. In the context of the mass this signifies the birth of Jesus Christ, and as the sound of the bells gently faded the effect was intensely poignant.
The Crucifixus is described by the composer as the “heart of the work” and it features a fearsome mix of war cries, rainstorms and dances, resulting in a dramatic and menacing texture. I wondered for a moment whether the percussion was slightly overpowering here – the war cries from South Sudan, for example, were not easily picked out. A belated mention here of the excellent soprano soloist, Lisa Swayne, who managed the wide jagged leaps with great style and aplomb.
The gentle Lord’s Prayer which followed drew a lovely gospel feel to the singing, although I did feel that the lead guitar was slightly over-amplified. After a movement of chants and a superbly effective Agnus Dei – with the soloist once again shining in her three consecutive cries of Jesu Christe – a thrilling, exhilarating and exuberant finale brought this unique work to a close. Rapturous applause followed, leading to an encore – a repeat of the Lord’s Prayer – during which Julian Collings, fittingly I thought, wore the cap presented to him earlier.
Photo credit: Clive Richardson