For this annual collaboration between Cranleigh’s Chapel Choir and Cranleigh Village Choral Society (on Sunday December 8th), the major work was Gounod’s Messe Solennelle, an easier sing than many mass settings and one that ideally blended with a second half of operatic lollipops, as Gounod was not only known for his operas, but also composed this piece in an extrovert near-operatic style. This was most clear in the two most famous movements, the Credo, which was sung with sturdy sincerity by the 140-strong chorus, and the Sanctus in which the tenor solo and choral reprise was given a rare dignity by conductor Marcus Pashley and rising opera star, tenor Luis Gomes. Many key desks in the Merriman Concert Orchestra (led by Kevin Weaver) were taken by the School’s permanent and peripatetic music staff: Ruth Williams ending the Benedictus with a sublime flute solo and Tony Adie and colleague somehow playing the parts for four trumpets on just two. The conductor’s love for this somewhat forgotten work was evident, not least in the shimmering sound he drew from the blended choir and strings in the Benedictus. Luis Gomes gave the final Agnus Dei an especially operatic quality, thus leading us on to a second half of opera from four countries.
The orchestra had already impressed in the non-vocal Offertorium in the Gounod and opened the second half with the old egg-timer itself, Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ overture. It never ceases to amaze me how English orchestral players can produce a performance of such unanimity and relative subtlety on just one rehearsal. Indeed, I have heard such rehearsals in which some passages just had to be taken on trust in order to practise the more challenging sections. The bassoon work was especially delightful, as was the tuba line (that man Bob Wilson again) in the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Salves’. The choir were excellent here and seemed in great spirits for the choral section of the ‘Brindisi’ from ‘La Traviata’. Mr Gomes is singing in this Verdi opera at Covent Garden this season and clearly relished the promotion here to the lead part of Alfredo. His Violetta (also a soloist in the Gounod) was Katie Bird and the third singer, Nicholas Warden took centre stage in what was the most sheerly enjoyable part of the evening, the ‘Toreador’s Song’ from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. If it was a little rough around the edges, well, so is Escamillo, and the choir’s acting as the bull-ring crowd, waving their scores with a picador-style flourish, really helped move us from the French sacred world of Gounod to the secular world of a Frenchified Seville. It was very much, ‘plein de sang’, indeed.
It was an inspired idea of Marcus Pashley’s to give us not just two hit numbers from ‘La Bohème’, but to link them into the end sequence of Act One. Mr Warden had little to sing (and off-stage, at that) but Mr Ruis and the tiny-handed Katie Bird were in their element as Puccini’s Rodolfo and Mimi. The touches of staging, rather than the singers just standing and delivering, were very effective. I share Marcus Pashley’s enthusiasm for Borodin and so, it seems, did the orchestra in the famous ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from ‘Prince Igor’ though in the limited space of the Devonport Speech Hall, the chorus at times had to fight hard to project their lines over the weight of sound. The ladies sang as if no strangers to paradise and the men bravely praised the mighty Khan, albeit in English, which never quite cuts it against the exotic eastern melodies. There was not a seat to be had by seven thirty and the audience showed their appreciation enthusiastically at around nine forty-five.