Donald Trump is due to visit Blenheim Palace on 12th July for a lavish black tie dinner hosted by Theresa May, no doubt keen to flee London and its protesters. The village was surprisingly tranquil, an influx of U.S. Secret Service people seemingly not yet having commenced. It was a sweltering evening for the Woodstock Music Society's summer choral concert of German music spanning exactly 100 years, from W. A. Mozart to Anton Bruckner. The spacious church, with its 18th century tower in classical style and mainly late Victorian interior with massively-beamed ceiling, provides a gracious space, though there is the common problem of a church concert in that orchestra, conductor and any soloists perform on the same level as the audience, and visibility from the rear seats is hampered. On the other hand the 72-strong choir, in which sopranos and altos, as often the case with an amateur choir, outnumbered tenors and basses by more than 2:1, stood on steeply-raked platforms at the back, so could be clearly seen by all.
We began with Bruckner's Ecce sacerdos [Behold the Priest], a sacred motet from 1885, though not performed during the composer's lifetime. I've seen it performed by an unaccompanied eight-voice ensemble, and also by a 20-voice choir, accompanied unusually just by trombones. The choir immediately produced a substantial sound – not at all a routine circumstance, given that amateur choirs often take time to get into their stride - underpinned only by the church organ, the whole sounding satisfyingly muscular; something like a miniature version of Bruckner's Mass No. 3 in F minor.
Franz Schubert's Offertorium (Intende voci orationis) is described in Alison Ingram's programme notes, a model of their kind, as possessing 'an overall tone of tender lyricism', and I thought tenor Hiroshi Amako managed this very tone, while coming on strongly to fill the nave with his voice against the four-part choir. The oboes of Alison Street and Anna Evans were prominent at the start in the orchestra which featured familiar names and faces from local ensembles. Conductor Paul Ingram, an ever-vigorous presence vis a vis his choir, set a trotting pace without rushing.
This was followed by Beethoven's Die Ruinen von Athen [The Ruins of Athens], Opus 113, a set of incidental music pieces composed to accompany a play of the same name at [Buda]Pest. The substantial overture is something of a wind section showpiece; bassoons and cellos were there at the start, then rather shaky clarinets, and then Beethovenesque timpani rolls announced themselves, followed by oboe and horn solos, and later flutes and, once more, bassoons. A notable Turkish flavour for the 'Dervish Chorus' and well-known 'Turkish March' was handily enhanced by excellent trumpet work and slightly exotic castanets and handbells, and then the grander character of the 'March and Chorus' appeared, though the timpani here rather overwhelmed the wind section, especially the flutes.
Judith Baumgartner, an experienced concertgoer who had flown in from Munich especially for this concert, was complimentary of the pronunciation of the German by the choir in respect particularly of the 't's at word ends and authentic, throaty 'r's, and later in the concert was very enthusiastic about the quality of the Mozart.
The second half comprised Mozart's Davide Penitente, very unusually for him re-using elements of his earlier and unfinished 'Great' Mass in C minor and here sung in English rather than the perhaps more desirable original Italian. The opening chorus ought to be a fairly overwhelming experience and the choir put in a lot of energy here, though the violins were rather subdued. Our soloists now came into their own, and I would describe their singing as satisfactory (Hannah Bennett, mezzo), good (Hiroshi Amako, tenor) and outstanding (Ilona Revolskaya, soprano). The latter in her aria
...the faith I cherish from
earth can never perish; though all in dust should lie, still God would reign on
sang the words with great feeling and pin-sharp tone, whereas the mezzo when called upon rather adopted a florid, operatic approach that chimed a little uneasily with the psalm libretto. Later, for her Through the darkness in which we're shrouded aria, Revolskaya was notably nimble on the quick ascents and descents through the register, hitting the top notes unerringly in the coloratura passages. The choir backed up the soloists nobly.
A large memorial tablet on the south wall records the passing in 1837 of Rev. William Mavor, a past rector, inventor of a system of shorthand and tireless writer of children's textbooks
...though dead, yet speaketh for the improvement of youth & infancy in the volumes which he has so benevolently & judiciously adapted to the great powers of the mind...
A fine tribute, and one wonders whether in years to come any such memorial to his contribution to the education of young people may rightfully be inscribed to President Trump.