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Patrons: Dame Emma Kirkby and Sir David Willcocks

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Vaughan Williams


Psalmus Hungaricus

Dona nobis pacem


Somerset Chamber Choir

Southern Sinfonia

Charlotte Ellett

Andrew Staples

Benedict Nelson

Graham Caldbeck







Click here to view the concert programme


Vaughan Williams's 1936 'Dona Nobis Pacem' opened the programme. This work combines the familiar Latin text with poems by Walt Whitman and other biblical verses, to convey not only the senselessness and loss of war but the peace and hope that it can bring.


I have to say that I found the vibrato of the soprano soloist Charlotte Ellett too obtrusive for my personal taste, but she sang her part with feeling and musicianship.  The chorus articulation throughout was first rate, and their attention to the dynamics was better than the orchestra's in places.  


At first I thought that the baritone, Benedict Nelson was just a little under-powered for the notoriously difficult Wells acoustic, but once I had 'tuned in' to him, his phrasing and expressiveness in the Whitman poem 'Reconciliation' were excellent.  In this item the choir blended beautifully and sonorously.  Now that they had warmed up, I thought their sound in the 'Dirge for Two Veterans' conveying the sombre event being described (a funeral of a father and son killed in battle) was perfect, the central outburst spine-tingling and the closing pages beautifully balanced.  


The fifth section is probably the most complex chorally, and the chorus made a full-bodied sound while keeping every line clear.  Benedict was stronger and more forthright in this, and the chorus's build up of the texture leading to the exultant finish by all forces was well done - their final 'Goodwill toward men' was uplifting and there was a quiet, contemplative close to a fine performance.


After a short interval came Kodaly's 'Psalmus Hungaricus', premiered in 1923.  The exciting orchestral opening was followed by a truly gorgeous unaccompanied chorus entry.  From his opening notes, tenor Andrew Staples gave us a truly superb rendition of the solos in this work.  His fine, ringing tone was matched by the passion and emotion he brought to the music, and this was a performance to treasure.  You might think that singing 'Ah' repeatedly is easy - not the way Kodaly wrote it!  The chorus coped very well with the awkward rhythms and they were pitch-perfect throughout.  In fact I thought at one point that a little bit of glissando and scooping might  have made the sound a little more 'eastern' but I think Graham should be well-pleased with what came out.  Andrew's phrasing was impeccable and the final choral passage was brilliantly done.  


Poulenc records that writing his 'Gloria' gave him a lot of trouble, and it is a rather odd work in places.  The balance between orchestra and chorus was not good at the start, making the choir sound a little unfocussed.  The playful 'Laudamus Te' was a bit leaden-footed initially, but it became more sprightly in the 'Propter magnam'.  Charlotte Ellett returned to sing the soprano solo in this work, and I found this to be a better vehicle for her voice.  Although the vibrato was still there, her tone was pure and I enjoyed her performance.  


The weird intervals Poulenc wrote for the soprano in the 'Dominus Deus, Agnus Dei' were not only well handled by Charlotte, but beautifully contrasted by really lovely singing by the chorus of the more 'conventional' harmonies in the responses.  A glorious entry by the tenors in the 'Qui Sedes' followed by the whole choir letting rip set us up for a really lovely ending to the work and to the whole evening.


This was music making of a very high order.  All of the forces acquitted themselves with honour, and Graham's firm control of everything was evident throughout.  He and his choir can justifiably be proud of what they achieved. It was a performance which obviously delighted the audience, and rightly so.


Harold W. Mead


Saturday 2 August 2008

Wells Cathedral

‘Songs of war & peace’


Last Saturday in Wells Cathedral, the Somerset Chamber Choir and the Southern Sinfonia, conducted by Graham Caldbeck presented a concert of the highest standard entitled "Songs of War and Peace".  At first sight a mixture of Vaughan-Williams, Kodaly and Poulenc seemed an odd menu, but the themes of conflict and suffering, horror and nobility, trust and reward all fitted together very well. The result was a worthwhile and wholly gratifying musical experience.