The Croydon Bach Choir performs Elgar’s ‘Spirit of England’ and some livelier tunes

By - Tuesday 17th June, 2014

Liz Sheppard-Jones overcomes initial difficulties to find herself both moved and entertained by the Croydon Bach Choir

The Croydon Bach Choir prepares to perform in St Matthew’s Church. Image by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

In the famous words of Princess Diana, “classical music is really not my bag.” I just don’t know that much about it although I feel that I should – but if an excuse is good enough for the queen of hearts, it’s good enough for me.

Then again, to simply receive, unweighed-down by much essay-writing, can be a good thing. That’s what I did on Saturday evening, 14th June, at a performance in St Matthew’s Church, East Croydon, by the Croydon Bach Choir of Edward Elgar’s Spirit of England, four old English songs and The Green Hills of Somerset, all by Eric Coates, and excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeoman of the Guard.

I wanted music about war to have a more muscular quality

The Croydon Bach Choir is one of the leading amateur choirs of South London and performs a wide range of works, some pretty ambitious, according to its website. At first glance the initial piece on the programme, Spirit of England, sent Farragian chills down my spine, but that was my ignorance once again since it is in fact a war requiem, doubtless selected as this centenary summer of the outbreak of the First World War gets underway and intended by Elgar to capture the spirit of war poet Laurence Binyon.

Performing tonight. Image by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission

I don’t think the title sells the work, and I wasn’t convinced the choir did either. As a group it seemed overweighted towards sopranos, and female voices in general. This unbalanced the sound and when the tenors and basses came through they had a tentative quality. I couldn’t escape the sense that music about war needed a more muscular feel.

Anyway, as war requiems go, Benjamin Britten and Wilfred Owen showed how it’s done. In Britten’s 1962 composition, as war poet Owen’s lines, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend [...] let us sleep now” flow into “In paradisum deducant te angeli” (“May angels lead you to paradise”), I weep with understanding as the mother of boys ever closer in age to the boys sent to that hundred-year-old slaughtering ground. The horror of such loss is so great that imagination swerves away from it – a horror and pity I could not find in Elgar’s music.

There were sparky individual performances and both humour and pathos

Vivacious soprano soloist Belinda Evans was a delight and her choice of four songs by Coates a big success. At 75p, she explained to the audience, the purchased score was her luckiest-ever charity shop find. Having delivered the lyric, “Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness,” Ms Evans broke off her performance to ensure that an elderly lady in the first row she had noticed being dazzled by evening sun through the stained glass window was moved to another seat – rather neatly answering her own question. Her confidence and obvious relish for the music were catching and from that moment I began to enjoy myself.

In the second half, Gilbert and Sullivan bounced us along and I was impressed by some sparky individual performances, particularly the beautifully mature voice of Marion Padgham as Elsie and an imposing Anne Davenport as Dame Carruthers. Helen Draper also did a great job, as spoken narrator, of filling in the plot gaps with both humour and pathos so that we could follow the story in sufficient detail to appreciate the music.

The Yeoman of the Guard is the darkest of the Savoy Operas and ends with the heartbroken collapse of one of the principal characters following the loss of the woman he loves. This brought us full circle back to the themes of sorrow and desolation: ‘misery me, lackaday me’. It was neatly and movingly done.

The evening’s choices were interesting and the Bach Choir is a group I would like to hear perform again. When I got home, I referred to the concert as Croydon, Spirit of England on no fewer than three occasions. That has to mean I’d had a good time.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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