The surrounds of St Mary's Church, Wheatley, mostly an extensive graveyard bright with aquilegia, oxalis and perennial wallflowers, were looking a picture on this clear Saturday evening in mid-May.
This was a Duruflé and Handel concert, leavened by songs from two soloists. Beginning with an ambitious choice, Duruflé's Requiem, the choir got off to the Introit in very tentative fashion, as if insufficiently warmed up. Though Roger Simmonds on keyboards, switching from piano to organ at the flick of a switch as the tempo of the piece's sections required, gave a clear lead, the church's acoustics may have prevented the organ sound from percolating effectively to the further reaches of the choir. Amateur choirs can have trouble in projecting with maintained energy during those parts of the score where sotto voce singing is marked, and such tended to be the case here.
But in the Sanctus the choir burst butterfly-like from its chrysalis with the Hosanna!, and then, after a poignant Pie Jesu from alto soloist Shelley Cox, in the In Paradisum the choir demonstrated good intensity before the music lapped quietly to a conclusion.
Duruflé is an interesting organist/composer, a real perfectionist in that he went over and over his compositions, honing and deleting, and only turned out 13 finished works from a whole host of pieces judged by him to be unsatisfactory. Just as interesting is the story of his wife, Marie-Madeleine, assistant organist for donkey's years to her husband at Eglise St Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, a modest personality but described by expert judges, including Sir Adrian Boult, as the finest organist in the world.
Handel's four Coronation Anthems from 1727, employed for the Coronation of George II that same year, featured after the interval. The King Shall Rejoice was the opener, and I noted that elements of it have been inserted into his oratorio Esther which I heard recently. All of the first three anthems were both lively and suitably dignified, the choir now happy in concert with the chamber orchestra. Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened with its text from Psalm 89 had an opening section that had fine, rhythmic appeal thanks to conductor Kate Billimore's decision to press on, with the singers making quite a bright sound with a sense of lively engagement and plenty of spring, even in the more lyrical sections.
Handel was alternated with songs from Fauré (tenor Moray McConnachie making a decent fist of them) and then from Elgar, with Shelley Cox producing a strong but sensitive rendering; perhaps the highlight of the evening. Zadok the Priest, already ear-marked by the future King Charles III for his coronation, rounded things off in style, the orchestra's strings building up coiled tension for that big blast of massed choir and triple trumpets.