ST. JAMES’ EPISCOPAL CHURCH, STONEHAVEN
The Stonehaven Chorus under conductor Ralph Jamieson were in fine voice for their Spring Concert 2022. They performed to a full house audience in St. James’ Episcopal Church. The Chorus opened with ebullient enthusiasm as they sang ‘A Prayer For Ukraine’ in the Ukrainian language. It sounded good to me. I was glad that Ralph Jamieson invited us all to stand for this item, exactly as it should be!
This was followed by the ‘Chandos Anthem No. 2’ by Handel. Sometimes it can be performed with early instruments, as with The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers (see the internet). Ralph Jamieson did not have access to that number of performers but what he did present for us could hardly have been bettered. For instrumentalists, we had an excellent organist in Peter Shepherd along with three of the finest string players in the North East, violinists Andrew and Emily Birse and cellist Alison Macdonald. They opened the Anthem with its instrumental ‘Sonata’. Their performance had a similar promise of great things to come just as you get with the start of Messiah. Yes, there were indeed great things to come. The Chorus starting with fine clear soaring sopranos took flight followed by tenors, altos and finally the basses. Contrapuntal entries were cleanly defined. The words of the texts came across with admirable clarity. All the free-flowing melismatic runs for choir delivered an infectious sense of enthusiasm. There are three tenor solos in the work. These were delivered with just the right fiery clarity by Christian Schneeberger. Texts were printed in the programme but when Christian was singing they were not needed, such was the perfect clarity of his diction. There were marvellous crescendos from the Chorus to match their words ‘Snares, fire and brimstone’ for example. There was a splendid sense of transparency throughout the performance giving the music a chamber quality which I think Handel had intended.
Handel was born in Germany but spent much of his creative life in England. There was a match with the second main composer in Sunday’s concert. Cherubini was born in Italy but spent much of his creative life in France. Having attended concerts for more than sixty years, Sunday’s concert was the absolute first time I had heard a live performance of any music by Cherubini. He seemed to have vanished from concert programmes, yet Beethoven referred to him as being the greatest composer of his time. He was later greatly admired by Schumann and Brahms and as our programme said by Mendelssohn as well. So what happened? Berlioz disliked him and once referred to him as ‘a dull, predictable, boring pedant’. However the Stonehaven Chorus and Ralph Jamieson proved that Beethoven was nearer to the truth than Berlioz who perhaps was having a bad day. So it is congratulations to Ralph Jamieson and the Stonehaven Chorus for choosing to programme this rather splendid work. They did not have an orchestra at their command but Sunday’s excellent organist brought out so much of the fine orchestral moments in his performance from quiet playing at the outset to explosive moments like the ‘Rex tremendae’ and the ever expanding ‘Quam olim Abrahae’. Cherubini has been described as both a classical and romantic composer and there were many lovely romantic sounding melodic passages in the work such as the ‘Graduel’. There are important moments for percussion in the full orchestral version of the music but we did have the explosive sound of the gong to introduce the ‘Dies Irae’. I liked the choral surges in the ‘Lacrymosa’ and the liveliness of both organ and chorus beginning the ‘Liber scriptus’. The work is a big, big sing for the choir and they kept going so well right to the quiet ending with unwavering singing. Am I allowed to say that the women, sopranos but altos too were consistently brilliant. There are of course many more of them. The tenors were good as when they led the choir into the ‘Pie Jesu’. I have to admire the unremitting hard work of the basses. I used to be one of those a long time ago. This performance by the Stonehaven Chorus delivered Cherubini’s rich harmonies with real fervour. Add too Cherubini’s fine counterpoints and so many attractive melodic passages.
At the end of the performance, Ralph Jamieson invited us to stand up for Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the National Anthem: a great way to ensure a standing ovation – perhaps the Stonehaven Chorus deserved just that, don’t you think?
Ralph Jamieson Conductor
Christian Schneeberger Tenor Soloist (Handel)
Peter Shepherd Organist
Andrew and Emily Birse Violins (Handel)
Alison Macdonald Cello (Handel)