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Congleton Choral Society, Congleton, Cheshire, UK

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Eternal Light and The Armed Man
Review in the Congleton Chronicle, 2nd August 2018

On 14th July Congleton Choral Society performed its last concert of the season in Congleton Town Hall.

It was an extraordinary evening of music evoking extremes of emotion, from intensely disturbing to totally uplifting, and serene calmness.

The works performed were two masses in modern settings: Eternal Light by Howard Goodall and The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins. These were aptly timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of World War 1. Both pieces were cleverly integrated within the framework of the traditional Catholic requiem mass in Latin, with appropriately chosen poems in English to describe the horrors of war and the aftermath, focussing on comforting the bereaved as they coped with the unbearable loss of loved ones instead of preparing for life in the hereafter.

Eternal Light began with a gentle but ominous, syncopated rhythm, leading into the requiem Kyrie and Christe Eleison of the Catholic mass. Then followed a driving, ferocious account, sung by the choir, telling the prophecy of the destruction of the world by fire as described in the Book of Revelations. After such horrors, belief and faith were challenged; John Henry Newman's hymn Lead, Kindly Light, appealing for guidance, was sung tenderly by the choir.

On the theme of comforting the bereaved, modern poems were used to urge them not to weep at the graves or seek revenge, but to remember the dead in love. These were sung very emotionally by the soloists, to the soothing accompaniment of the choir chanting the Lacrymosa and Dies Irae. A reminder of the prophecy of Revelations brought this section to a dramatic end.

The final part reverted to the last parts of the Latin mass. These all merged seamlessly into one long movement. It began with the soloists, who were joined gradually by the choir. Unexpectedly, the baritone soloist began to sing Lead, Kindly Light in English over the Latin chanting by the choir. Then the choir joined in with the soloist, culminating in a magnificently stunning and uplifting unison to the accompaniment of a full church organ sound. The very last words reverted gently and calmly to the Latin words et lux perpetua luceat eis (and let perpetual light shine on them).

The Armed Man, sculpted in the same fusion of the traditional Latin mass and modern verse in English, was presented in a much more dramatic and graphic way. The cast included percussion, trumpets, piccolo and violin, adding drama and intensity to the text.

Instantly, the opening set the scene of foreboding, drums beating a a steady, threatening rhythm, approached from a distance. A piccolo could be heard playing the tune of an old French song. Then voices were heard joining in, the words warning men to be constantly armed and ready to fight the enemy. The approaching procession got closer and louder, then stamped to a thunderous halt. The mood changed suddenly with a solo voice chanting the Muslim Call to Prayers, echoing atmospherically round the hall.

The Latin Kyrie (Lord have Mercy) was sung piteously by the soprano. Joined by the choir as a chorale, this piece evolved beautifully and serenely through contrapuntal and fugal styles. The singing was exquisite and emotional.

The men changed the character, urgently pleading to God to protect them from the enemy - 'Save me from bloody men!' Their singing was dramatically portrayed in the style of a plainchant - clear and absolutely together. Intensity grew as war approached. The normally gentle Sanctus was set to a menacing, insistent, staccato drum beat. The words incanted relentlessly to a unison rhythm punctuated by a tight trumpet rhythm. The noise was intensified by the percussion as it moved towards a fortissimo conclusion.

As the start of the battle grew nearer, the tension increased as the men were incited to war by the sound of drums and trumpets. At the command 'CHARGE!' light, loud, solid drum beats signalled the start of the fighting. The choir began a soft wailing that grew and grew into spine-chilling screaming accompanied by horribly discordant chords. Suddenly, there was a heart-stopping silence before a solitary trumpet sounded the Last Post.

Toge Sankichi was the author of the following text, Angry Flames. He described the aftermath of the terrible cloud that mushroomed over the skies in World War 2. Plaintively, the soprano described the scene - the fallout of the bomb, the fire, people crawling around burning to death, the trumpet adding pathos to the indescribable devastation.

The music returned to the Catholic mass to begin the final section of the work. The Agnus Dei was set to a tender, beautiful melody, gently weaving among the voices. The Benedictus had a sublimely haunting melody played by the violin then the trumpet. It was joined by the choir, creating an atmosphere of intense peace.

The Armed Man ended as it began - with the marching drum beat and the melody of the old French song but this time in a faster tempo with a joyful, optimistic mood. The emphasis was now on ringing the bells for peace as a lively piccolo fluttered brilliantly about. A gentle prayer-like chorale brought the drama to a peaceful and optimistic conclusion.

Christopher Cromar and his choir are to be congratulated on performing two fabulous works in such an extraordinary way. The percussion greatly enhanced the drama. Soloists soprano Charlotte Richardson and baritone Stuart Orme sang with great tenderness and gentle passion. The keyboard players were first rate. The choral singing was amazing; clear, articulate, well-phrased and well-rehearsed. The combined forces created the most tremendous rollercoaster of emotion I've experienced in a long time.

WHJ