The South London Singers’ Silver Jubilee Concert “Songs for a Summer Night” held at the Methodist Church in Beckenham on Saturday 30 June 2007, was superb in every way, reinforcing the claim that they are the leading chamber choir in the area. As well as the 30-strong choir, the concert featured the baritone Julian Empett and the Hammig String Quartet; David Thorne provided impeccable piano accompaniment and the ensemble was conducted by John Nightingale.
A selection from John Rutter’s cycle of British folk-song arrangements, “The Sprig of Thyme”opened the programme, followed by three rarely heard part songs by Edward Elgar, the 150th anniversary of whose birth fell this year – “The Snow” and “Fly, Singing Bird”, both for ladies’ voices, and “Spanish Serenade”, for full choir, the first line of which, “Stars of the summer night”, suggested the title for the whole concert. All three songs were accompanied by piano and two violins, allowing every voice and note to be heard – very different from the full orchestral treatment of Elgar that one hears at the Proms, but just as rewarding.
Fast-forward about 100 years from the composition of these part songs to our own time for the next item, which was the première of Salt Water Songs, a cycle of settings for voices, string quartet and piano by Geoffrey Lawrence. This was a very demanding and “meaty” work, composed especially for the South London Singers, for whom Geoffrey sings bass; and Geoffrey clearly brought to bear his thirty years’ experience as a choral singer in this skilful interpretation of poems by Masefield, Shakespeare and Allan Cunningham.
Two works by Eric Coates, uncrowned king of British light music and a genius at creating memorable “signature tunes”, began the second half of the concert. These were anticipated with great interest, seeing that the programme indicated that the works in question –“By the Sleepy Lagoon” (forever now associated with “Desert Island Discs”) and “Knightsbridge March”, which was long ago linked to the 1950s weekly show “In Town Tonight” – were to be played not by a full orchestra, but by the Hammig String Quartet. In the event, the Hammig captured every resonance and range of tone in such a way that it was easy to close one’s eyes and imagine nostalgically that one were listening to a 40- or 50-piece concert orchestra.
The magic continued with the South London Singers’ and David Thorne’s successful treatment of Carey Blyton’s demanding madrigal-like piece “What then is Love?”, with its sensitivity in the use of dialogue and its skill in imitative part-writing.
The concert ended with the chamber version of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, featuring Julian Empett. The entire company performed with the blend of ardour and mysticism required by this work, bringing the evening to a rousing close with the triumphant Antiphon, setting the familiar text “Let all the world in every corner sing”.