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Hastings Philharmonic Singers 25 Novmber 2023 (Jonathan Watts reviews)

Hastings Philharmonic (HPO) Singers
Saturday 25 th November at Christ Church St Leonards-on-Sea
Rameau Aquilon et Orithie
Rameau Quam dilecta tabernacula
Gilles Messe des morts
Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque
Music Director Marcio da Silva
Continuo Predrag Gosta

Marcio da Silva is something of a musical polymath. Among a whole host of activities, he is conductor of the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Singers; he has set up his own ensemble, OrQuesta Baroque to perform music from the baroque repertoire in which he directs as well as playing the recorder; he has a fine baritone voice; and he also is an enterprising impresario who brings to the Hastings and St Leonards music scene a wide range of high quality, professional and good amateur performances, both of large scale choral and orchestral works as well as smaller ensemble and soloist recitals. He is no one-man-band, however, and he would be the first to admit that he would achieve little without the focus and musical intelligence of the instrumentalists and
singers with whom he works.

Good as it is to resurrect forgotten works, rigorously authentic performances sometimes suggest that it might have been best to leave such works in obscurity. On the other hand, this concert of unfamiliar French vocal music from the late 17 th and early 18 th centuries by Rameau and Gilles proved quite the opposite: three pieces of great poignancy and beauty performed with exquisite tenderness, sensitivity, drama and utter musicality, enhanced by the fine acoustic and intimate candle-lit atmosphere of Blomfield’s Gothic-revival church of Christ Church St Leonard’s.

In Rameau’s solo cantata ‘Aquilon and Orthie’, the north wind woos his lover. There was a wonderful lyricism to Marcio’s singing, which fully brought out the drama of the text, while the recorder and violin soloists and the continuo of the distinguished keyboard player, Predrag Costa, provided brilliant but gentle support and contrast to the strong vocal line, emphasising both the dance like qualities and rustic melancholy of the music. The interweaving and imitation of the vocal and instrumental parts had a magical effect and the whole ensemble was perfectly balanced in a performance which was both intense but relaxed. I particularly enjoyed the graceful and implied shifting harmonies of the recitatives, which are unlike those of other composers.

The impressive instrumental playing continued in Rameau’s setting of Psalm 84. ‘Quam dilecta tabernacula’, with its sublime opening of strings and recorder, and the strings provided a firm but controlled accompaniment and counterpoint to the vocal lines. The soprano soloist had a bell-like purity of tone and, as elsewhere, the vocal line was not embellished with too many ornamentations which, in some period performances, can be excessive for a modern audience. The chorus provided a rich, intense but controlled sound which balanced the soloists well; entries were all precise, well-tuned and often dramatically joyful, with clearly articulated and pointed imitative phrases. Despite
the fullness of the writing, there was considerable variety to the texture of the choral singing. The light, evangelist-tone of the tenor soloist was exactly right, with a superb high register: his top notes floated out with consummate ease. This expressive lyricism was reflected by all four soloists who sang with perfect ensemble, balancing their volume and vocal quality to recreate Rameau’s wonderfully expressive harmonies and vocal lines. Crisp double-dotting gave the choral sections a light, dance-like quality while the bass solo with recorder again emphasised the harmonic intensity of the writing.

The quality of performance by soloists, instrumentalists and choir perhaps reached its peak in the performance of the Messe des Morts by Jean Gilles, a name new to me: what, one wonders, would he have produced had he not died so young aged 37 in 1705? The work has a remarkable variety of emotional content, from the solemn funeral march at the start to joyful, dance-like celebrations of the life hereafter, with sections of contemplative introspection, but at no point is there a sense of gloom: death is seen as either inevitable, a welcome release form the tribulations of worldly life or the door to eternal joy. This diverse approach to the subject matter was reflected superbly
throughout the performance, with the changing colour produced by different vocal, choral and instrumental combinations, all of which emphasized both the lyrical vocal lines and the often poignant harmonies. The variety of emotion was nowhere more apparent than in the solo performances, all well-balanced with measured instrumental accompaniment: it was good to hear soloists who were so responsive to each other, producing perfect ensemble singing. The choral elements were dramatic, exhilarating and, in the final chorus, heart-wrenchingly moving in its emotional content: throughout, the choir sang with great precision in tuning and in its entries, some of them quite exposed, and coped well with the harmonic changes, producing considerable variety
in tonal colour. There was never a hint of straining for top notes, and the more forceful passages were simply exciting, with some almost theatrical interjections. This was a fine, totally professional performance of an unjustly neglected work which brought out its deep emotional power and sheer beauty.

There were absolutely no weak links among those involved in this impressive concert, and Marcio is to be congratulated on balancing so well soloists, choir and instrumentalists, while taking a leading role as performer himself to produce a highly memorable evening. I will certainly now be listening to more early Rameau and Gilles.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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