Christ’s Hospital Choral Society commemorate the fallen

Christs Hospital Choral Society
Christs Hospital Choral Society

REVIEW BY Mike Overend

For the fallen and the Lost – Works for Remembrance by English Composers, Horsham.

Of course, every choir and choral society in the country is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War of 1914-18. What made the Christ’s Hospital Choral Society tribute in St Mary’s Church Horsham last Saturday stand out was the intelligence of the programming, as well as the sensitivity of the singing.

The works chosen, and the different combinations of vocal soloists and accompanying instruments, made for an engaging variety of music making, all on the Remembrance theme. The man who brought it all together, conductor Alex Hodgkinson’s informal spoken introductions to the pieces added to the intimacy of the occasion.

Our attention was caught at the beginning by the Funeral March written by Purcell as a prelude to setting of the Funeral Sentences for the funeral of Queen Mary, played by young musicians of Christ’s Hospital. The first two choral movements are in Purcell’s most uncompromising mannerist vein, and the singers coped well with the demands of intonation occasioned by the leaps of the vocal lines, and occasionally outlandish harmonies, while relishing the beauty of the rising and falling phrase ‘He cometh up and is cut down like a flower’.

Here, as he did with the Elgar work after the interval, Alex Hodgkinson chose to conclude in simplicity rather than complexity, opting for Purcell’s more understated second version of the final Sentence ‘Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts’. From the audience’s point of view this was a most effective choice.

Baritone Ed Jones’s performance of a sequence of songs from George Butterworth’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ provided a complete change of style, and allowed us to enjoy Alex Hodgkinson’s skills as accompanist as he moved from the rostrum to the piano. Jones’s interpretation of these songs full of a sense of loss was wonderfully characterised, and reached a real peak of emotional intensity in the final dialogue between the living and dead Shropshire lads ‘Is my team ploughing?’, made the more poignant by the knowledge that the composer had himself died in battle in 1916.

In the second half of the programme, the chorus sang strongly in Holst’s plea for peace and tolerance ‘Turn back O man’. Much more sophisticated were the techniques employed by Elgar in the two movements from ‘The Spirit of England’, and here the chorus gave Elgar’s characteristic phrases life, moving from moments of tenderness to passages of declamatory power, and accompanying soprano Claire Ward sensitively too.

Her singing in this piece was another highlight of the evening. We expect Alex Hodgkinson to have his forces thoroughly under his control, and to get his singers to achieve a compelling performance; in addition he knows how to put a programme together. It was a stroke of genius, after the rather sophisticated Elgarian response to the tragedy of the Great War, to segue without pause into the hushed simplicity of Douglas Guest’s unaccompanied setting of the Binyon’s well-known lines ‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old’.

It was good to hear the St Mary’s Father Willis organ put through its paces by Peter Dutton in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’, and then in the choir’s singing of Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ set by Parry. It was inevitable perhaps in this year which marks the centenary of Parry’s death as well as the end of the First World War, that we should end with ‘Jerusalem’.

But after an hour or so of listening to music of real intensity it was a perfect release for the large audience to be able to join with the Christ’s Hospital Choral Society and the full organ, and to raise the roof with a song of hope.

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