Crispin signs off in style

Crispin Lewis

THURROCK Choral Society’s recent Christmas Concert, held at Thameside Primary School in Grays, saw the final appearance of Crispin Lewis as the Society’s Musical Director, after some 14 years in post – and the performances were an apt tribute to his work with the group.

As always he succeeded in moulding a numerically unbalanced choir into a balanced and effective chorus, whilst his tempi and interpretations of the music were consistently well-judged and full of vigour.

Accompaniments were provided through the evening by two members of the Bridgetower Ensemble: violinist James Widden and Alison Holford, who, once again, proved as adept on the piano as she is on cello.

The well-chosen programme included two Baroque settings of the Latin Magnificat, appropriate to a Christmas concert: the well-known, extended and highly tuneful one attributed to the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi – though it may, in fact, have been the work of his teacher Francesco Durante, who is known to have composed a number of other Magnificats – and a short one-movement setting by the German Johann Pachelbel, composer of the famous Pachelbel Canon.

Both works received vibrant performances. The sopranos launched the Pergolesi with splendid tone in their opening melody, reprised later, and appropriately, at the words “Sicut erat in principio” (“As it was in the beginning”).

Subsequent highlights included the crisp and dramatic choral entries on “Fecit potentiam” and “Sicut locutus est”, and a very satisfying account of the final Gloria.

It seemed a pity that the brief, optional soprano and alto solos at the start of the second movement (“Et Misericordia”) were sung by the chorus, when the Society’s regular soprano and contralto soloists, Madeleine Ladell and Kate Fun, were available and participating in the performance, but that is a small criticism.

It was unusual to hear the fourth movement (“Suscepit Israel”) sung by sopranos and altos, rather than the tenor and bass sections for which it is scored, but this adaptation worked well.

The Pachelbel was new to me, but I should certainly like to hear it again. A short piece, its busy and continuous vocal lines nevertheless demand a choir with stamina and good articulation. Both were in evidence on this occasion, whilst the dynamic variety which these performers brought to the score was an added bonus.

The third choral work, given in the second half, was a composition by the twentieth century English composer Arnold Bax: a set of Five Fantasies on Polish Carols, written in 1942, and intended to be sung by British children in sympathy with starving children in war-torn Poland.

The first and last of these carols incorporate Polish folk dances, respectively a polonaise and a mazurka. Both were well characterised by Thurrock’s singers, other highlights including the expressive phrasing of the lullaby in the fourth carol. Presumably in order to avoid the possible monotony of five pieces all in unison, the vocal lines were sensibly distributed amongst the different sections of the choir.

As is now usual in Thurrock Choral Society concerts, the choral programme was punctuated by instrumental items from the Bridgetower Ensemble – and how well-chosen they were! Firstly, James and Alison played arrangements for violin and cello of a selection of Two-Part Inventions by Bach, which fitted the Baroque theme of the first half well. Having played some of this music myself on piano, I was intrigued by the transfer to this different medium.

Clearly stringed instruments can give more colour and nuanced dynamic variety to the writing than is possible on a piano (let alone a harpsichord), a fact of which these players took full advantage, especially in the lovely E Major Invention.

Elsewhere they were agreeably spirited and vivacious.

By contrast, in the second half, Alison accompanied James on piano in three Christmas songs: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (some virtuosic piano work), the carol “Noel Nouvelet” (a nice, lyrical arrangement) and “The” Christmas Song, “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” (agreeably bluesy).

And the third ingredient in this seasonal concert? Four audience carols were distributed though the evening, these including “Silent Night”, its first verse beautifully sung by Madeleine Ladell. It was good to hear Madeleine again, albeit briefly.

Altogether, then, an impressive and very enjoyable evening.
The Society will now continue under the Musical Direction of Elspeth Wilkes, its long-term professional accompanist, and one wishes them continued success.