St Peter's Church, Steeple Aston was Sunday night's setting for the local choral society's Italian concert. The village is a handsome one, and when strolling round before the concert, I came upon many houses, including ancient almshouses, built of the local Hornton stone, a brownish limestone/ironstone that was for centuries and until 2008 quarried locally. The church itself has its origins in the 13th century. Its distinguishing internal feature is a monument sculpted by a Dutch stonemason in 1730. Nikolaus Pevsner in his Buildings of England: Oxfordshire says tartly of it:
"The heroic baroque convention in church monuments at its most ridiculous. Judge Page, a Gilbert & Sullivan figure in full legal robes and periwig, reclines on one elbow beside his dumpy wife who is en deshabille and propped up on bolsters.... technically it is superb".
The choir and soloists were placed beyond the arched rood screen in the chancel, while the audience of c. 55 sat in the nave. The first part of the programme consisted of 13 operatic arias and choruses sung in Italian. The highlights of these, to my mind, were firstly Handel's 'Lascia ch'io pianga' aria from Rinaldo, whose premiere was in London in 1711. Soprano Angela Kazimierczuk demonstrated excellent articulation here of the lyrics. Mozart's 'Voyagers' Chorus' from Idomeneo by the choir of 30 (20 soprano and alto voices and 10 basses and tenors) found the choir still warming up since there was a tendency at the start not quite to climb to the top notes, a shortcoming remedied just afterwards. A baritone solo, Mozart's 'Catalogue' aria from Don Giovanni, a list by his servant of the serial philanderer's sexual exploits in five countries - it's doubtful whether even Brexit would have cooled his ardour - was sung with dramatic force by Guy Harbottle who then in a duet with the soprano launched into 'Là ci darem la mano', advancing down the nave and perfectly in character.
Not to be outdone, tenor Jeffrey Stewart gave us a committed 'Vedrommi intorno' from Idomeneo, a guilty lament, and Ms Kazimierczuk rounded things off with simply but forcefully expressed sorrow and then agitation in 'Dove sono i bei momenti' from Figaro, and then in the footsteps of Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe, Puccini's famous 'O mio babbino caro', rendered with passionate pleading. To hear three soloists of this quality, among the best I've come across in the last year, was an unexpected joy.
In the interval we were urged to tuck into tasty Italian antipasti and wine under the disapproving eye of Judge Page, and then it was the turn of Giacomo Puccini in the form of the 'Messa di Gloria', his only Mass and composed at the age of 22 as a graduation requirement from his music college. A number of its themes recur in his operas, and the light but dramatic setting is far removed from the solid, ecclesiastical masses of, say, Haydn and Beethoven.
Accompaniment was supplied by Alex Aitken from the church organ. There was no orchestra – a satisfactory arrangement, even if, for instance in the first part of the 'Credo', the absence of strings and brass was felt. In the 'Christe eleison', voice after voice entered in ascending order, and at the start of the extended 'Gloria', the choir put out a fine burst of energy. If they were slightly laboured in the 'Et in terra pax', they made up for it with the dynamic climax of the 'Laudamus te'. Mr Stewart delivered his colourfully harmonized solo of 'Gratias agimus tibi', and then in the 'Qui tollis peccata mundi', almost a march that could have jumped straight off the pages of a Verdi opera, the basses and tenors gave it all they had, all spring-heeled energy. The tenor rounded the Mass off with links from the chorus to a final pianissimo 'Dona nobis pacem', its triplets echoed by the organ.
This was a choral concert to savour – delightful village setting, a most hearty welcome from Margaret Bulleyment and her colleagues who had gone to great trouble to please their audience – and music of gratifying quality. As we left the church, was a softening on the grim old face of Judge Page just discernible?