Once upon a time it was standard practice that most public concerts in Britain would be preceded by the National Anthem; last night in Huddersfield Town Hall a great many members of the audience were caught off guard when a brass and percussion fanfare struck up into the loudest, most ecstatic rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ I have ever heard. Two verses were sung, split between soprano soloist Katherine Broderick and the chorus with audience participation. This in itself was a fine example of the mighty massed choral experience one has come to expect of the Huddersfield Choral Society’s decades of tradition.

Bramwell Tovey
Bramwell Tovey

At this point the concert began in earnest, and the lyrical, meanderingly melancholic melody of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, heard first on the flute underpinned by pizzicato strings, set the mood for the remaining two French works. The initial female chorus entries were slightly shaky, but they soon found their way into Fauré’s five-minute masterpiece and, in combination with the tenors and basses, exhibited wonderful choral texture and restraint coupled with excellent orchestral control under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Following Fauré’s familiar favourite came a work much less heard in England, Gounod’s charmingly tuneful Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile. Composed in 1885, Gounod’s Messe is an example of his facility for colourful orchestration and the kind of memorable melodies that leave you humming them for days after. In this work of contrasts, Gounod exploits a variety of styles throughout including moments of Italiana, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and at one point even a striking resemblance to the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony.

The Kyrie got off to a good start, well paced with good choral balance throughout, though a little strain in the tenor’s high notes was apparent. The trio of soloists intervened and soprano Katherine Broderick, tenor James Edwards, and baritone Roderick Williams were a well-suited and musically sympathetic ensemble.

The Gloria is very powerful but opens with a smooth and lyrical solo on the French horn in which the Orchestra of Opera North’s principal horn player Robert Ashworth exhibited controlled and accurate but musical playing. This movement is an opportunity for the chorus to really raise the roof, and the volume achieved was truly astonishing. Incorporating the solo soprano, this movement displayed Broderick in fine voice, though, as with the tenors earlier, this high French choral writing does have its problems and a few extremely high notes were approached with some difficulty. This was, though, soon forgotten, and Williams, accompanied by a solo oboe, softened the mood with his familiar warm baritone before being joined by a clear and resonant Edwards.

It is a shame to highlight matters of irritation at this point but it must be noted that there were far too many ‘heads in copies’ – it is more pleasing for the audience to see the chorus looking out and confident, rather than down at their music.

The Credo followed with a further display of controlled choral blend, the whole chorus singing as one voice, incorporating a pensive solo trio. The next movement, a purely orchestral Offertorium, was a sweet and sincere offering from the Orchestra of Opera North. The Sanctus and Benedictus followed displaying a slightly ‘chesty’ tenor solo, but this soon passed, and a plaintive Broderick closed the movement.

The Mass proper finishes with the Agnus Dei and it was certainly delightful, especially the two prominent harps that highlighted Gounod’s more sensitive orchestration. The work ended with three musical prayers that were considerably more militant in style and reminiscent of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

After a short interval, which the audience used to soothe their burst eardrums, the mood was altered considerably and the prayerful Duruflé Requiem closed the evening. This music, introduced to England in the 1960s by David Willcocks, has become a standard favourite for both concert organisations and liturgical use.

The choral writing is principally based on Gregorian plainsong, and the Huddersfield Choral Society excelled especially in unison sections displaying extreme dynamics. Moments of exposed solo choral lines might have flowed a little more easily and with less rigidity, allowing the music to press forward gently, unforced – this was particularly apparent in the Pie Jesu, assigned to a mezzo-soprano soloist but here taken by the alto section. Baritone Roderick Williams again sang beautifully.

Ultimately this was a wonderful concert and a splendid opportunity for the Huddersfield Choral Society to display their unique sound in works familiar and unfamiliar. They are furthermore indeed lucky to have such a strong chorus master in Joseph Cullen who has prepared them excellently.

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