Thoughts of longevity and mortality were in the air at All Saints Church, Headington on Saturday evening. These Headington Singers' concerts have been on-going for 30 years or more, I think always in the very same church, and for the last 20 of them have been directed by Sally Mears. Mind you, these timelines resemble fleeting moments when one considers that the 90 year old vicar of All Saints, James Cocke, who gave out a church notice at the interval, has held his post here for 60 years – a current British record. He arrived in 1957, the year that Elvis Presley received his call-up for the US Army; Theresa May was not even born.
This was a Viennese concert, Vienna being the city in which our composers Mozart, Schubert and Anton Bruckner all variously lived, and in which the two first-named died at an appallingly young age. The HS treasurer, Jo Lateu, was on hand at the door with a super-friendly welcome, and it was with Mozart that we began in the form of his motet, 'Ave Verum Corpus', and a peaceful start it was, with the strings able to pace themselves into the concert, in the knowledge that more strenuous material lay in wait.
The famous 'Clarinet Concerto in A major' succeeded it, with Sally's son David as soloist. I last heard Mr Mears, a post-graduate music student, playing this very work in March last year when he was a finalist at the Oxfordshire Concerto Competition for young musicians. He told me that the music had been going through his mind for months, even on buses and trains, well before he got down to serious practice. Mrs Mears took the three movements at just the appropriate tempos. I enjoyed the little flourishes from the bassoons at the end of the 'allegro', and hereabouts Mr Mears had to articulate descending arpeggios right down to the extreme lower register; he made his slick fingering and sculpted phrases seem effortless. The 'adagio' commenced with a delicate intervention from the horns, and Mr Mears immediately settled into the silky tone and smooth breathing control that one hopes for from this dreamy music. He was unafraid to slow down a couple of times to 'largo' pace, but with no loss of purpose. He will start his professional music career with justified confidence after this accomplished performance.
After the interval came three of Bruckner's motets, the most striking of which was 'Ecce Sacerdos Magnus', an antiphonal piece. The novelty here was the accompanying presence of no less than three trombones, whose part was notably harsh, almost braying. They and our choir of 23 male voices and c. 45 sopranos and altos produced a sound of no little intensity. Every one of them sported a peach-coloured carnation, a delightful visual touch.
On finally to Schubert's
'Mass in a flat major (No. 5)', and four soloists joined the choir, though this is primarily a mass for choir since the solo voices are subsumed within or effectively embroider the work's choral arc, only the soprano being stretched. Rebecca Van Den Berg obliged with a clear, carrying tone. The opening 'Kyrie' is gentle, almost imploring, and the choir got into its stride immediately. Throughout the mass, the tenors and basses were never striving to make their presence felt amid a welter of sopranos and altos since, unlike in the case of many amateur choirs, the imbalance in numbers was not too pronounced. The fortissimo burst of sound that opens the 'Gloria' had the choir at full stretch and it rose four-square to the challenge.
Later, the long, sweeping fugue, 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' was tackled with energy and nice harmony in the part singing. The cello playing in the orchestra was, I thought, its outstanding feature and in the 'Gratias agimus tibi' the depth of sound from cellos (two of them from the Appel family) and bass was excellent. If at the unaccompanied start of the 'Credo' the cohesiveness of the singing faltered somewhat, the rendering of the 'Sanctus' alternated outpourings of joy with whirring strings that generated plenty of tension.
The quality of programming and execution was such that in all his 60-years tenure, Mr Cocke can have seen and heard few more satisfying than this.