Candles, tree lights, mulled wine, mince pies and carols – could Christmas be in the offing perchance? Milverton Concert Society once more presented an evening of fine music to banish the “Bah humbugs!” when ten singers from the highly successful a cappella group ‘Blossom Street’ entertained us last Friday. Led by their founder Hilary Campbell, they performed a lovely programme under the title ‘A Short While for Dreaming’ which heavily featured the music of Peter Warlock. The other composers presented also fitted in very well with what was a well-chosen list of items, and the whole evening was a delight.
The sound they produced was characterised by clarity of the individual lines but with a solid and well-balanced ensemble sound. Only occasionally did the tenor line sound a little too prominent, but since it was being so beautifully sung, this was not a major fault! Another feature was the scrupulous attention paid to dynamics, Hilary communicating very clearly what she wanted, and getting it every time.
An item-by-item analysis would be boring, but there were several outstanding numbers which I must mention. The popular ‘Carol of the Bells’ was articulated to perfection and it came up sounding fresh and new, no mean feat for such a frequently performed piece. The sound blend in ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was sonorous and rich both in harmony and (more difficult) when they were singing in unison. Herbert Howells’s ‘Here is the Little Door’ was truly gorgeous, with the long legato phrases done to perfection. Harmonically this is a killer, and I thought I detected a little uncertainty in the bass pitching at the end.
Warlock’s choral music is not sung as often as it deserves and Hilary’s advocacy was very welcome. The disciplined energy the choir brought to ‘Benedicamus Domine’ was of the finest, and the harmonically fiendish ‘The Spring of the Year’ was coped with very well. The first half ended with the choir distributing themselves about the church for an in-the-round performance of the famous Rachmaninov setting of the Ave Maria ‘Bogoroditse Devo’. The surround sound was stunning, and all of the dynamics from the quietest pianissimo to the massive outburst at ‘Yáko Spása, rodilá’ were spot on.
After the interval, the delights kept coming – the well-known ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ was perfect, the lovely underpinning sound from the men contrasting with the soaring arcs of sound from the ladies. Rutter’s ‘Quem Pastores’ was a lovely mixture of tightly controlled sound but rhythmic freedom, and the joyful performance of Warlock’s ‘Yarmouth Fair’ was an object lesson in perfect ensemble and diction.
The concert ended with Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’. The story of how this came to be written is now legend – in 1927 the almost broke Warlock and poet Bruce Blunt wrote this as an entry to a carol competition in the Daily Telegraph, and won. The prize money provided them with ‘an immortal carouse’ for Christmas Eve. Hilary took this at a risky very slow tempo, but it paid off. The choir maintained a lovely depth of sound even in the quietest moments (well done basses – you coped with a slight pitch drop!). This was a lovely finish.
Well, not quite – we did get a rollicking encore of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ to round off an evening of great delight.
Review by Harold W. Mead. 13/12/15