"Glorious music, splendidly performed"

James Francis Brown, the composer, reviewed our concert in St Albans Cathedral on 30 April and pronounced it "remarkable". His review appeared in the Herts Advertiser on 12 May. Here it is in full:

Glorious music, splendidly performed

On Saturday night, a full audience enjoyed one of those occasions that reminds us of the remarkable fare available, on foot, to the residents of Hertfordshire and beyond. St Albans Choral Society, together with top-notch Orchestra Nova conducted by George Vass offered a programme that was as generous as it was intelligently devised.

Opening with a high-spirited performance of Haydn’s Te Deum in C, the choir signalled their intent with clear enunciation and exuberant rhythmic play with the orchestra. It was good to hear the authentic kettle drums, enhancing the 18th century flavour of this compact and exhilarating work.

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, K618 was perfectly suited to the acoustic of the abbey, the choir exchanging the customary sepulchral hush for a brighter, even sunnier tone.

The ensuing Symphony No 40, one of Mozart’s most familiar works, shared this buoyant, air-filled approach; the brilliant young orchestra responding hand-in-glove to Vass’s concept of the work. This performance drew attention to the essentially vocal origin of Mozart’s music and gave emphasis to the Rococo charm of the work without neglecting the dramatic qualities so admired by the early Romantics. The first movement was nicely poised, shining a refreshing light on the second-subject and an elegantly-flowing account of the andante gave way to a minuet in which the contrasting trio seemed, again, to reveal a charming emphasis.

The finale demonstrated just what a virtuosic orchestra can achieve under the expert guidance of conductor Vass and Leader, Martin Smith. Dramatic placing of harmony, brilliant articulation and vitality in the bow-strokes together with pin-point accuracy of intonation ensured that the first half closed with real flare and a sense of anticipation.

The careful choice of works in the first half seemed to conspire and mingle in the mind during the interval, so that the calm generosity of Beethoven’s Mass in C was met with a receptive spirit in the minds of the audience. Nowhere near as often performed as the Missa Solemnis it is, nonetheless, a highly personal and characterful work. For this, the most substantial work of the evening, choir and orchestra were joined by four soloists who well understood the subtle, understated nature of the music. Daisy Brown’s sparklingly fresh yet splendidly controlled soprano was well matched by Ben Alden’s light and ethereal tenor. In the lower voices, the carrying, bell-like warmth of tone from mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and baritone Michael Bundy never strained the chamber-like intimacy of the vocal quartet.

But it is the choir that represents the universal humanity in this work and, again, this quality was conveyed with dramatic purpose, excellent intonation and rhythmic clarity. Highlights of the performance include a vigorous ‘Cum sancto spirito’ and a tense ‘Qui tollis’ (lovely clarinet playing here too), an intimate yet never over-wrought Benedictus and a heart-warming reprise of the music from the opening Kyrie in which the word pacem (peace) offers a magical revelation of the expressive kernel of the work.

It’s odd to note that Prince Esterházy II, who commissioned this work, found it to be ‘unbearably ridiculous and vile’. One wonders how the première must have sounded; by all accounts, it was far from ideal. I can’t imagine that a performance as committed and communicative as that given on Saturday night wouldn’t have persuaded him otherwise.

James Francis Brown