Hereford Choral Society Celebrates in Style its First 175 Years of Music Making

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi: Requiem. Claire Seaton (soprano), Jeanette Ager (mezzo-soprano), Justin Lavender (tenor), David Stout (baritone), Hereford Choral Society, Philharmonia Orchestra, Geraint Bowen (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 17.3.2012 (JQ)

In countless British towns and cities the local choral society is an intrinsic part – often the backbone – of musical life. That, I suspect, is especially true of a city such as Hereford which is situated at a distance from other places where large scale choral or orchestral concerts regularly take place. Hereford Choral Society is currently celebrating its 175th anniversary. It isn’t the oldest established British choral society: I believe that distinction is claimed by the Halifax Choral Society, founded in 1818. However, the Hereford chorus was not long behind; it was founded in 1837 and can therefore claim seniority over the other two Three Choirs choral societies of Gloucester (founded 1845) and Worcester (1861). Since the foundation of the HCS its conductor has always been the Organist and Master of the Music at the cathedral. Geraint Bowen, who has directed the cathedral’s music since 2001, is the tenth conductor in the HCS’s long history. It was a pity that the souvenir programme for this concert didn’t go into more detail about the choir’s history but further information can be found on the choir’s website.

As if to emphasise both the durability of the HCS and its roots in the local community there was a pleasing touch at the very start of the evening. In introducing the concert the Dean of Hereford, no mean musician himself, I believe, told us that present in the audience for this 175th anniversary concert was a Mr Mike Morris, who had sung in the choir’s centenary season!

For this, the final concert in the HCS’s 2011/12 season they chose, understandably, to present one of the great masterpieces of the choral repertoire, Verdi’s Requiem. It was interesting to reflect that by the time the Royal Choral Society gave the British première of this work (in 1875, with Verdi himself on the rostrum) the HCS had been in existence for 38 years.

The programme listed 162 singing members and it looked as if most if not all of those singers were on parade for this concert. Clearly the HCS is no more immune than most choral societies to the general lack of tenors and basses. Only 45 tenors and basses were listed – 28% of the membership – and just 14 of these are tenors. Why is it that although male voice choirs seem to flourish “traditional” choral societies appear to find it so hard to recruit gentlemen members? To be honest, doing the Verdi Requiem with 14 tenors is a bit of a challenge though the Hereford tenors were valiant and only occasionally – for instance in the ‘Libera me’ fugue in the final movement – did they appear to be significantly underweight.

The choir’s contribution was good. The quiet singing at the very start was well judged and later in the opening movement there was good, firm tone at ‘Te decet hymnus’. In this movement, and throughout, there was good attention to detail and to Verdi’s markings: clearly they had been well prepared by Geraint Bowen. The ‘Dies Irae’ was exciting and although the singers were a bit swamped at ‘Tuba mirum’ I’m certain that Verdi, whose orchestral scoring is heavy at this point, envisaged having a much larger choir at his disposal. ‘Rex tremendae’ had the necessary weight and was suitably majestic. Later in the work I admired the choir’s work in the Sanctus, which was lively and joyful with some delicate singing at ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. In July the HCS will no doubt provide a sizeable contingent to the chorus for the Three Choirs Festival. On this evidence, they will form a solid backbone.

The soloists played their part in the success of the performance – as is essential in this work. Early on, in the ‘Liber scriptus’, I had the impression, perhaps wrongly, that mezzo Jeanette Ager was having to push her voice in its lowest register – it’s a demanding passage – though the middle and top of her voice were fine. Subsequently, she and soprano Claire Seaton sang expressively in the ‘Recordare’ though hereabouts I had the sense that they were seeking to take the music at a slightly slower tempo than Mr Bowen wanted. However, this was a well sung duet in which the voices of the two ladies complemented each other nicely. At other times Miss Ager was a very reliable element in the solo quartet.

Tenor Justin Lavender was a late substitute for the advertised soloist. It’s a difficult role to sing for Verdi asks his tenor to be heroic at times and sweetly lyrical at others. The two highest profile solos for the tenor are the ‘Ingemisco’ and the ‘Hostias et preces’. In the former I thought Lavender tended to be a bit more forthright than poetic, though he sang ‘inter oves’ nicely. ‘Hostias’ was more successful; here we heard sensitive singing. Elsewhere, Mr Lavender gave a good account of his part, not least in the Offertorio quartet and in the Lux aeterna where I never envy the trio of soloists the complex chromatic lines they have to deliver – and which were safely negotiated on this occasion. Baritone David Stout provided a firm foundation for the solo quartet. He sang ‘Mors stupebit’ with appropriately dark and imposing tone and I appreciated the full, round sonority and legato line that he brought to ‘Oro supplex’. His was an authoritative performance.

The most prominent solo role is the soprano part. It’s also hugely challenging. I enjoyed Claire Seaton’s singing. She was equal to the histrionic demands of the role, not least in the ‘Libera me’. Even more praiseworthy, though, was some of her soft singing. The quiet E with which she began her contribution to the Offertorio was floated beautifully and the soft top B flat at the end of the unaccompanied section in the Libera me was perfectly placed.

I’ve seen Geraint Bowen in action several times in the past at Three Choirs Festivals and each time I’ve been impressed with the clarity and good musical taste of his conducting. This was another such occasion. As I’ve already said, he’d clearly prepared the chorus very thoroughly. Come the performance and he communicated his vision of the score clearly and confidently to all the performers in a convincing reading that was mercifully free from mannerisms or misplaced gestures. His judgement of tempi seemed to me to be ideal – or, perhaps, by that I mean he presented the work as I like to hear it! Only once did I have a doubt: the ‘Tremens factus’ passage in the Libera me seemed to me to be a bit cautiously paced and as a result it lacked the requisite tension. For the rest, all was well and Mr Bowen controlled his substantial forces very well indeed. I hope the Philharmonia will forgive me if I don’t comment in detail on the playing: this was a night for singers. Suffice to say that their playing, both collectively and, particularly in the case of woodwind soloists, individually was excellent throughout the evening. Where Verdi calls for it there was plenty of power but there are many more passages where sensitivity rather than power is called for and in these stretches of the work the orchestra delivered – the sensitive string playing at the end of the Offertorio was one example among many.

At the end of the performance the large, attentive audience gave the performers a warm reception. This was fully justified by the performance itself but I suspect it was also a grateful acknowledgement by the music lovers of Hereford of the important role played by the Choral Society in the life of their city during the last 175 years.

John Quinn