This was the last date of Orchestra of St John's Music in the Abbey festival, and talk about going out with a bang! The programme was a cornucopia crammed with operatic gems, the delivery impeccable and the setting a delight. To take the latter first, concert seating in Dorchester Abbey faces the choir, whose east end is described by Miss Jennifer Sherwood in Pevsner's Oxfordshire as "magnificent... the use of sculpture combined with tracery is without parallel on this scale not only in England but in Europe". As if this were not enough, the audience space is a pillar-free zone, the acoustics excellent, the welcome at the door warm, the concert programme a model of its kind, and the refreshment stall well-stocked.
We began with the first sequence of Strauss waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, to my ear delightful for their relatively unemphatic waltz beat, freeing the music from its rigid dance carapace. This opera was Strauss' greatest popular success. Special Rosenkavalier trains ran from Berlin to Dresden for the performances there, and Berlin was awash with Rosenkavalier brands of champagne and cigars. For once, the male members of the 30-strong orchestra made the greater visual impression in their white dress jackets, the women adopting no particular colour code.
Then on to our three soloists: Hannah Davey, resplendent in blue, sang an aria from La Boheme and then another from Massenet's Werther, an opera not known to me. Both sentimental pieces, but the latter lighter in tone. This was as strong beginning. Then we heard the mezzo Francesca Saracino with two pieces from Gounod's Faust, a grand 19th century opera needing dozens in the chorus and elaborate sets and costumes (plus a mini-ballet in Act V). Ms Saracino's full, rounded tone, backed by her obvious pleasure in the music, made a fine impression.
Then we heard Ilona Domnich from St. Petersburg, with something altogether weightier and darker, the Willow Song and then Ave Maria from Verdi's Otello, the orchestra breaking occasionally into the 'growling' chords characteristic of the composer. John Lubbock, the orchestra's founder and conductor, took this at an unhurried tempo, allowing the music to breathe, and Ms Domnich filled the nave with the tragic laments of the wronged Desdemona.
The second half had but two components to it. First, Strauss' Sextet from Capriccio, here played by a fullish orchestra. The piece has a life independent of its mother opera, being a popular chamber item. It features delightful counterplay between 1st and 2nd violins and an elegiac quality a little reminiscent of the famous adagietto from Mahler's 5th. Mr Lubbock coaxed a smooth, dreamy tone from his players.
Finally we had the great trio from Der Rosenkavalier, featuring our three soloists, with Francesca Saracino taking the male part of Octavian - time-honoured gender-bending, sure, but still tricky. I wonder whether our singers knew that this very piece was performed at Strauss' memorial service? Whether or no, they sang their hearts out, jostling musically to demonstrate once again that, in love, three into two won't go. The displaced Ms Domnich took her bow at the end as a half-curtsey, hand on heart, in the manner of a ballerina after a Grand Pas de Deux.
Three terrific singers, a committed orchestra, fastidious programme planning - an evening for the connoisseur!