Eye Bach Choir en masse

Haydn: Harmonie Messe, Beethoven: Mass in C, Eye Bach Choir and Orchestra at Eye Parish Church, Saturday 17th May 2008

Haydn: Harmonie Messe, Beethoven: Mass in C, Eye Bach Choir and Orchestra at Eye Parish Church

Saturday 17th May 2008

In the last year or so the Eye Bach Choir have achieved a quite remarkable standard under the leadership of conductor Leslie Olive, their performances revealing great understanding, skill and rare commitment. Sadly their decision to perform both Haydn's Harmonie Messe and Beethoven's Mass in C proved unfortunate and meant that they were unable to maintain this high standard.

One can understand the reason for the decision. Quite apart from their shared text, there is a strong link between these two works. Both were commissioned by Prince Nikolaus II of Esterhazy, and both caused their composers a certain amount of grief. Haydn wrote his Mass in 1802 as his health was failing, and found the work difficult: he wrote to Prince Esterhazy that he was “labouring wearily at it”. Beethoven's Mass in C was written in 1807, but was not a success. The Prince did not like the work at all, and told Beethoven so: Beethoven departed in a huff at what Charles Rosen called his “most humiliating public failure”.

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The orchestra led by Geoffrey Barker had a good evening (though not, sadly, the organist) but in the Harmonie Messe Haydn's thick scoring proved too much for the choir's habitually restrained singing. Modern instruments simply make more noise than Haydn's 18th Century ones. There was, though, some beautiful woodwind playing especially from Tim Osborne (flute), Cathy Wilcock (oboe) and Barry Carben (bassoon). The restraint of the horns and trumpets did them credit, and the very small string section did excellent work although they were defeated by some very quick passage work in Haydn's Credo.

The performance was also well served by four excellent soloists who sang with impressive accuracy and almost perfect ensemble. Suffolk girl Fiona Hammacott brought authority and flair to the soprano line, while alto Elaine Henson was formidably precise. Tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson sang with subtlety and great beauty, and though Mark Oldfield's light bass sometimes lacked the depth and weight the part demanded he was, as ever, completely reliable. This was easily the best team of soloists the Eye Bach Choir have had in recent years, and one hopes they will all be invited back to sing more rewarding music in future.

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The Haydn should have suited the choir best, and there was certainly some fine singing. Balance was excellent, and the tone homogenous. The sopranos' top notes were effortless, though their vowels lacked variety which made their singing less than vivid. The tenors were unconvincing in the contrapuntal “Amen” section of the Gloria, and the long, difficult and pointless Credo was a tedious experience.

There were moments of excitement, though. Some long crescendos were beautifully executed, and the difficult change of tempo at Osanna in excelsis brought the heads of the audience up for the first time. Throughout, the choir got everything right but managed to give the impression that they did not know their work well enough to look up and enjoy their own performance.

Although the final Agnus Dei was charming, with comfortable singing from the soloists and some lovely woodwind playing, the triumphant tutti conclusion was hasty and unconvincing. There were few smiling faces among the choir at the end.

The Beethoven Mass in C is probably the 19th Century musical equivalent of half a cow pickled in formaldehyde, the work of a still-young composer intent on playing the iconoclast and making a mark in the world. Any work by Beethoven is automatically a “masterpiece”, of course, but it has to be said that this is an unforgiving piece, abstruse and unnecessarily difficult. Other composers have done it better. Perhaps it was nicer to perform than to listen to - certainly both choir and orchestra seemed more at home than in the Haydn.

The choir handled well the many contrasts of dynamic and style, and dealt manfully with the intricacies of Beethoven's rather arbitrary and frighteningly rapid counterpoint. Beethoven's choral music is always difficult to sing, especially for sopranos at the limit of their range, and to the choir's credit this rarely showed. However, in the “qui tollis” section neither orchestra nor choir seemed rhythmically secure, and in the Agnus Dei there were obvious wrong notes from the gentlemen, the first in many years.

The opening Kyrie is a finely crafted movement and was sensitively sung, but the high point of the evening was the Benedictus, surprisingly romantic in style for the four soloists with a supple string obligato and lovely antiphonal singing between soloists and choir.

There was much applause at the end, and rather more smiling faces in the choir - relief, perhaps. The Eye Bach Choir claim in their programme to be one of Suffolk's leading choral societies - and so they are, and deserve to be. But everyone makes mistakes, and on this occasion they bit off a little more than they could elegantly chew.

A.E. Hayward

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