Review - 02 December 2009

Source: Bridgwater Mercury December 2009

A Musical Feast

"Alexander’s Feast" is a musical extravaganza by Handel, based on a legend from the life of Alexander the Great, the text deriving from a poem by John Dryden. Bridgwater Choral Society gave a convincing performance of it in St. Mary’s Church on 2nd. December before an appreciative audience. The convolutions of the story take in scenes from the battlefield, and from the celebrations that followed, where a bard sang so captivatingly that the king was roused to undertake further conquests. The poem then goes on to emphasise the power of music, and the role of Cecilia, music’s patron state, in inspiring people to compose music for less bloodthirsty occasions.

Handel found plenty of material here for his talents, and unusually, there are three numbers which feature solo instruments not used elsewhere in the score: two French horns in one aria; a solo trumpet and tympani in another; and two flutes in a third. Otherwise, the orchestra of strings, oboes and bassoons, led by Vyvyan Brooks, ably supported the singers. As a tribute to St. Cecilia, the legendary inventor of the organ, a short organ concerto also formed part of the original concept. The solo part was played on St. Mary’s organ by Ray Willis, the society’s regular accompanist, who rose manfully to tackle the challenge of the concerto’s semiquaver passages, and added many baroque-style ornaments to the slower sections.

Peter Wilman, the tenor soloist from Gloucester, dazzled the audience with the vocal pyrotechnics of the role and its many recitatives, and throughout, displayed perfect tuning and clarity of diction. The other soloists, Mary Morgan and David Mills, came from within the ranks of the choral society. Mary gave yet another bravura performance of some of the more tender arias: especially expressive for me was the arioso "Softly sweet", accompanied only by harpsichord and cello. David sang with great spirit and energy, though a recent virus had robbed him of some vocal power, so that his duet with the trumpeter found the balance between them wanting.

Illness, indeed, had robbed the society of some regular members, and the chorus, especially the soprano line, was sometimes underpowered. The musical director, Iain Cooper, controlled his forces with authority, and there was a pleasing contrast in the singing of the diverse musical moods offered by the piece, with much attention to the detail.

This was an enterprising programme choice, and a pleasing diversion from the regular, limited repertoire of many choral societies. It is also nice to record the fact that there were some fresh faces among the singers. I urge others to try a Wednesday rehearsal or two, and see if singing is something that suits you.