The bicentenary of Richard Wagner’s birth is inescapable, and it comes as no surprise that, however brief their offering, an institution as august as the Huddersfield Choral Society (HCS) could not allow the moment to pass without taking advantage of the opportunity to perform one of Wagner’s most impressive choral outbursts – “Wacht auf! Es nahet gen den Tag” (Awake! the dawn of day draws near) from Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This fleeting nod to the sacred art of music was the most mutually agreeable item of tonight’s programme, with the Orchestra of Opera North accustomed to tackling large operatic scores, and the HCS at ease in repertoire requiring great force. This great choral blast was preceded by an orchestral introduction that resembled the music in the opera prior to its entry but with various shorter choral punctuation omitted; despite being taken far too slow, a better introduction would have consisted simply of the single bar of strings that rise in a scale to greet the chorus’ entry – this would have held a more staggering dramatic impact also, presenting the audience with an immediate wall of sound. Nonetheless, as one would expect, the noise was incredible, an excellent fortissimo choral blend that relinquished its power delicately into Wagner’s delicious hymn of praise.

Huddersfield Choral Society
Huddersfield Choral Society

Following this, Verdi’s reasonably unfamiliar Quattro pezzi sacri; written for four different ensembles on four different occasions, they were collectively published in 1898 and, though often performed as a set, they bear no compositional connection other than that they are four sacred texts. Personally I find Verdi difficult in terms of extracting genuine emotional sentiment, and regardless of the conviction of performance (which the HCS has in abundance) and the ever-increasing boiling temperatures of Huddersfield Town Hall, it was the music more than the performance that left me cold – the score itself never quite reaching the emotional intensity of Verdi’s great Messa da Requiem of 1874. Chorus and orchestra struggled in terms of balance and blend was occasionally uneven. Two movements in particular, Ave Maira and Lauda alla vergine Maria, presented further problems being entirely unaccompanied, and an ensemble like the HCS generally works better when supported by an orchestra, organ, or brass band. Sopranos and altos experienced difficulty in Lauda alla vergine Maria with pitch occasionally being questionable – however, Verdi’s score does not help and the ladies of the chorus may be forgiven these slips in lieu of the excellent performance post-interval of Stanford’s Stabat Mater. Tenors and basses were especially impressive in the closing Te Deum.

To close the concert, the HCS’s first performance of Stanford’s unfamiliar opus, the Stabat Mater; completed in 1907 and receiving its première in Leeds, the work follows in the wake of Stanford’s contemporaries’ epic contributions to large-scale choral works of the same decade including Elgar’s Gerontius, The Kingdom and The Apostles, and Bantock’s Omar Khayyám. It is a pleasure to hear a great work for chorus and orchestra by Stanford other than the popular Songs of the Fleet and Songs of the Sea, and amusingly ironic to find him setting an apocryphal Catholic text following his criticism of Elgar’s Gerontius as “stinking of incense”. Nonetheless, the work is a masterpiece, opening with an emotionally driven orchestral prelude out of which the Orchestra of Opera North screwed every bit of zeal that they could muster; woodwind and strings were especially prominent, coupled with an impressively focused brass sound set alongside a luscious string melody into which the orchestra, conducted by Christopher Seaman, loaded emotional warmth and intensity. The quartet of soloists was unfortunately disappointing; soprano Ailish Tynan’s hesitant and uncomfortable performance supported an occasionally overindulgent vibrato unsuitable to Stanford’s score, whilst tenor Paul Nilon is secure at the top of his voice, but the music seemed to tax his efforts, leaving bass Darren Jeffrey as easily the most impressive soloist of the quartet. (Alto Ann Taylor replaced Pamela Helen Stephen at short notice.)

The choral effort was stellar – sensitive and well balanced, responding with sympathy to the demands of Stanford’s moody, brooding and dramatic score. Gentle, grief-like lilting in the opening movement’s “O quam tristis et afflicta” contrasted beautifully against the triumphant trumpeting of the closing movement’s “Virgo virginum”, before the work came to an ethereal “Amen”.