This was bound to be a charged occasion - St John's Church, Derby, UK, 13 November 2021. Not only was it the Sitwell Singers' first concert since lockdown, it was also their first since the unexpected death of conductor Malcolm Goldring in the summer. Assistant conductor David Henshaw has stepped into the breach, and here directed a programme that Goldring himself had planned, originally for a concert in 2020.
The opener, Parry's 1902 Coronation anthem I Was Glad, can sometimes sound overbearing, but this was a refreshing change: more thoughtful than usual, with a nice intimacy to 'O pray for the peace of Jerusalem'.
Tom Corfield, who played for most of the choral items, also contributed two organ pieces, starting with Carillon from Vierne's 24 Pieces in Free Style, given a spirited reading, with the athletic pedal part clearly articulated.
Two of Parry's Songs of Farewell followed, beginning with a nicely flowing 'Never Weather-beaten Sail'. There's not much anyone can do about the stop-start sectional structure of 'My Soul, There is a Country'; Wisely, Henshall and the Sitwells didn't try to smooth over the joins.
Baritone Aaron Kendall, a graduate of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, gave a foretaste of the evening's second half, with the Fauré-like O Quam Suavis by Belgian organist-composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953).
It was sensitively shaped, though Kendall's voice seemed more used to bigger spaces, and I would have preferred a touch less vibrato. It was followed by the evening's second organ piece, Parry's Choral Prelude on 'Eventide', the familiar tune to the words 'Abide with me ...', which was allowed to make its own statement without fuss.
Tom Corfield moved to the piano to join the singers in Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs, an early-ish group of George Herbert settings with a major role for solo baritone. In No 3, 'Love bade me welcome' the dialogue between the poet and Love could have been more clearly differentiated, but Kendall's sensitive treatment of the last verse was matched by the choir's wordless plainsong in the background. Kendall also brought a well-judged sense of growing confidence in 'The Call'. The concluding 'Antiphon (Let all the world in every corner sing)' is for chorus alone, so giving the opening phrase to Kendall - it's sung by unison tenors and basses in the original - jarred slightly.
It was back to Jongen for the main work in the second half: his Mass, Op 130 of 1945, to which he added a Credo three years later. With its big organ part, this sits somewhere between Vierne and Duruflé. David Henshall's spoken introduction drew our attention to the work's expressive contrasts, and these were duly emphasised in the performance. The choir had occasionally sounded a little tentative in the first half - no doubt the uncertainties of the previous year and a half or so, and the social distancing between the singers on this occasion, had their effect - but this felt more secure, with the various short solos confidently taken by members of the choir. The corners in the Credo were neatly turned; 'Et incarnatus' was delivered in a compelling hush, and the build-up at 'Et resurrexit' was exciting. The Sanctus, a lively choral fanfare, included some punchy Hosannas, while the serenity of the concluding 'Dona nobis pacem' felt exactly right.
An extra item, Bob Chilcott's Two Friends, was commissioned for the choir's fiftieth anniversary in 2016, when it was conducted by Chilcott himself, and given a repeat performance at the end of the concert. It succeeds in avoiding the potential mawkishness of the words, and its inclusion here was a touching tribute to Malcolm Goldring's time with the choir.
Copyright © 25 November 2021