Past Performances

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A Plea for Peace

Sat, 1 Dec 2018
Review from Henley Standard by John Burleigh

THIS well-attended concert — titled “A Plea for Peace” — brought nearly a month’s worth of national First World War remembrance activities to a timely and comforting conclusion.

The programme chosen by the Benson Choral Society with the Elgar Orchestra for their tribute to the fallen began with Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor.

Written and first performed at the end of the 19th century, this gentle and quintessentially English work is a poignant reminder of a bygone age, before all reason was set aside and the world engaged everyone in mindless conflict.

The Elgar Orchestra, under the direction of its guest conductor, Ian Clarke, set the mood for the evening perfectly.

To perform Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (Opus 48) the choir and orchestra were joined by soprano Eleanor Stevens and baritone Daniel Tate, who was a last-minute replacement for the advertised baritone soloist, Philip Tebb.

Of all the great requiems this Fauré masterpiece is regarded by many as the most restful and ethereal. The choir caught the mood of the work immediately and sang it consistently with admirable sensitivity and exceptionally clear diction.

There are many memorable melodies and tender, comforting moments in this mass — probably the most famous being the soprano solo, Pie Jesu. Eleanor Stevens sang this from the heart with a simplicity and purity of tone which sounded truly angelic in the reverberant abbey.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) occupied the second half of the programme.

VW, as he is known, had played his part in the First World War as a stretcher-bearer and felt compelled to write this cantata in 1936 when ominous signs of war preparation began to appear in Germany.

The cantata is an emotive work in which the soprano soloist makes a plaintive appeal for peace, to be answered strongly by the baritone soloist with emotive extracts from Walt Whitman’s poems describing the brutality of war. You would never have guessed from Daniel Tate’s commanding and confident delivery that he did not have this work in his repertoire prior to this engagement.

The version of the work used in this performance was a 2017 arrangement by Jonathan Rathbone that calls upon reduced instrumental forces but with a full percussion department to reveal the full horror of war.

This worked very well in Dorchester Abbey, enabling an unforced, natural balance to be maintained between instrumentalists and singers.

Ian Clarke’s immaculate direction of the ensemble and obvious empathy with the performers added confidence and encouragement to deliver a consistent and meaningful interpretation of the whole programme.
 


Mozart Masterpieces - June 2018

Sat, 16 Jun 2018

Review from the Henley Standard

This concert, under the title Mozart Masterpieces, was well attended and also enjoyed a welcome visit from the setting sun that lit the inside of the ancient abbey with a warm glow. The programme title was well chosen, consisting of Mozart's inspiring Laudate Dominum K339, the sparkling Piano Concerto No 21 in C K467 and the heavenly Mass in C minor K427. 
The Benson Choral Society's permanent conductor, Christopher Walker was on excellent form and ably supported by his Elgar Orchestra. They were joined by the society's talented rehearsal pianist, Anita D'Attellis, who gave an apparently effortless performance of the piano concerto that buzzed with energy and brilliance. 

Miss D'Attellis slowed down for long enough after the opening Allegro maestoso to produce an ethereally beautiful Andante that was everything Mozart could have wished for. In particular the forward-looking, romantic harmonic progression that so upset Mozart's father as being 'wrong' was so well balanced and seamless in its performance that even 'Papa' would have to admit that Mozart Junior 'got it right'. 

The bustling Allegro vivace assai that ended the concerto was very vivace, with Maestro Walker firmly imposing the assai element to keep the whole ensemble glued together.  It made for an exciting performance that fully justified the audience's enthusiastic reception of it.
The vocal highlights of the evening had to be the Laudamus Te solo sung impeccably with warmth and clarity by mezzo soprano Susan Legg; and the short, but telling contribution by the tenor, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks in the trio, Quoniam tu solus.  
The soprano soloist, Elizabeth Roberts, had a pivotal role to play in both in the Laudate Dominum and the Mass but had a persistent problem with tonality. She sang with a fast, wide vibrato that indicated approximately where the note should be in the tonal spectrum without actually establishing it. This was highlighted starkly in the Domine Deus duet when the soprano and mezzo soprano voices intertwine and echo each other, with uncomfortable results on this occasion.
Mozart's beautifully transparent orchestration and his love of wind instruments offered many opportunities for tasteful instrumental display. The substantial oboe solos and duet with the flute in the Mass were particularly effective. The prominent wind solos in the piano concerto were played immaculately by bassoon and flute soloists, always firmly underpinned by light, sensitive string playing.

The choir had plenty to occupy it in this concert and was on good form. The balance was consistently excellent and, impressively, the sudden pianissimos they were called upon to execute in the Mass were disciplined and most effective.  Their Credo was entirely credible and their Qui Tollis was a masterclass in clear diction.
One has to feel sorry for the bass soloist, Michael Bundy, whose short but essential claim to fame extended to just a few bars that occur in the final Benedictus. He made a full, rich and powerful sound. Perhaps he will return at some point in the future to regale us more prominently.

Byways of Beethoven

Sat, 10 Jun 2017

Review from Henley Standard

How often, on your travels, are you tempted to turn off the beaten track to explore some little byway that might lead to nowhere, the town dump or, hopefully, some pleasant escape from the daily rigours of modern existence? Such a detour off the A4074 on Saturday evening might have taken you to the picturesque little village of Dorchester where the Benson Choral Society was exploring some musical byways of its own choosing in the imposing and capacious Dorchester Abbey.
The ‘Byways of Beethoven’ turned out to be well worth the visit.

Beethoven’s Mass in C Opus 86 had had an unfortunate start in life, its first performance being under-rehearsed and not finding favour with its original dedicatee, Prince Esterhazy, who was used to having his birthdays celebrated with a new mass by Haydn.
The Benson Choral Society was on fine form and brought out all the beauties and subtleties of this delightful work. Under the watchful baton of maestro Christopher Walker they gave a well-disciplined, warm and precisely-articulated account that matched and blended superbly with the four vocal soloists.

The Elgar Orchestra, with a string section that was scaled down to the size that Beethoven would have used, added finely judged colour, including simulation of natural horn playing in the Credo exactly where it was needed to support the context.
The second piece on the programme, Halleluia from Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, was more like a byway excursion to the town dump. Sadly, however well performed, the piece does not stand up to the inevitable comparison with the chorus of the same name from Handel’s Messiah. This was a detour probably selected to fill the gap in an otherwise rather short programme. Towards the end the basses tried to hurry it along a bit only to be firmly skewered by Maestro Walker’s ever-ready baton. Enough said!

The programme ended with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, Opus 80 written in haste originally to fill a gap in a programme that was overlong already, featuring as it did Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies, his fourth piano concerto and excerpts from the mass we had just heard.

This extraordinary work – part piano concerto, part symphonic cantata – was given excellent treatment. The piano soloist, Anita D’Attellis, brought out all the pomp and grandeur inherent in the long, solo introduction. How it sounded on a primitive pianoforte of Beethoven’s time must be left to the imagination. On a modern concert grand it filled the Abbey impressively. 
The choir and the six vocal soloists that the score demands joined the piano and orchestra to do full justice to the finale, a full–bloodied outpouring of joy that actually requires strong discipline and sensitive balancing of sound to achieve the intended effect. The result was most gratifying, leaving us all with nothing left to do except to applaud rapturously and meander back onto the A4074.

A detour that was well worth taking, methinks!


Byways of Beethoven _ B

Sat, 10 Jun 2017
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