REVIEW: Ely Choral Society at Ely Cathedral, Saturday September 26

Ely Choral Society to perform at Ely Cathedral next week

Ely Choral Society to perform at Ely Cathedral next week - Credit: Archant

Audience numbers for Ely Choral Society’s concerts have grown as its reputation has spread way beyond the city so it must have been a little disappointing for the choir to face so many empty seats in Ely Cathedral on Saturday.

How could the concert planners have known this ‘celebration of Mendelssohn’ would be in competition with the England-Wales Rugby World Cup clash, not to mention the launch of Strictly Come Dancing.

But those who did spurn sport and Strictly were not disappointed.

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the great composers of the Romantic era, a favourite of Queen Victoria who described him as “the greatest musical genius since Mozart”. By the time of his premature death in 1847 at the age of only 38, he had composed an extraordinary amount of music from symphonies and concertos to chamber music and songs.

His love of early church music developed during his time as a chorister in Berlin where he became familiar with the cantatas and motets of J. S. Bach. To open the programme, the Society’s musical director, Andrew Parnell, chose three of Mendelssohn’s own Motets from Op 79 (Sechs Spruche). The chorus - who faced the added challenge of singing in German - made a spirited attack on the first, were joined for the second by sopranos Rebecca Duckworth, Alison Summers and tenor Mark Hounsell and by the third they had relaxed and, by the look on some faces, I’d guess they had received an encouraging and deserved ‘well done‘ from their conductor.

Requiem - A Thanksgiving for Life was composed towards the end of his life by the late Sir Philip Ledger. It had its world premiere in America in 2007 and its first UK performance at King’s College, Cambridge, where its composer had been an undergraduate and later, a hugely respected organist and director of music. This was a confident performance of a finely crafted work of immediate appeal.

After this diversion to the 21st century, we were back in the 19th century for Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A major Op. 65 no. 3. Edmund Aldhouse, the cathedral’s assistant organist for the past two years, coaxes the most wonderful sounds from the magnificent cathedral organ. Gentle passages full of tenderness and expression contrasting with vigorous and powerful, this was a virtuoso performance.

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Following a brief interval, the evening ended with Hymn of Praise - Sinfonia Cantata Op 52 which was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention by Johannes Gutenberg of the movable type printing press. The central theme, according to Mendelssohn, was “... a kind of universal thanksgiving on the words of Psalm 150 - ‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord’.” The first performance of this was at Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and appropriately an atmospheric photograph of the church had been chosen for the programme cover.

The work originally opened with a three-movement orchestral sinfonia prelude, followed by a cantata of vocal movements which on this occasion stood as a cantata in its own right. Rebecca Duckworth, who makes such a huge contribution to the musical life of Ely and beyond, is a warm, beguiling soprano and her second movement solo was her chance to shine and Mark Hounsell gave a confident performance of his solo passage, The sorrows of death.

Confidence deserted the chorus on a couple of occasions and in the appropriately named movement The night is departing, Andrew Parnell must have wondered whether he would manage to shepherd them back to the score. But then the chorale Let all men praise the Lord (the familiar hymn Now Thank We All Our God) got everyone back on song before a beautiful duet for tenor and soprano and a triumphant chorus ending.