How many inventions have fundamentally changed the course of history? The wheel, the compass, the steam engine, the tea bag? Maybe; but surely in recent times the satnav! Enabling Michelle Holloway and her hardy band of devotees to boldly bring the recorder through darkness, rain, fog and manic traffic to new frontiers, mysterious and unknown regions outside the orbit of Birmingham. All arrived safely and docked in the church car park.

HERO were somewhat depleted in numbers for this concert, the foul weather and political depression having wreaked havoc with immune systems, and this probably also accounts for the lack of a program. However paucity in numbers was amply compensated by sonorous acoustics which particularly brought out the best in the basses.

Michelle administrated an immediate antidote to bleak midwinter with Mussorgsky’s cheerful and folksy “Gopak”, arr. by that doyen of the 20th century recorder Paul Clark. My favourite chorale “Von Himmel Hoch” followed, firstly in a canon arrangement by the 20th century German composer Peter Heilbut and then the full hymn in 4 parts taken from an arrangement by one Johann Gottfried Walther; very much a contemporary of JS Bach, he was in fact his cousin!

Eileen Silcock’s “Fantasia” starts with monophonic figure in Em, which is then repeated as a ground with upper moving parts. Eileen was an SRP stalwart who sadly passed away recently. Written in 2008, this short tonal work begins with a unison figure in E minor and makes imaginative use of counterpoint with almost a chaconne – like structure. Intriguing and enjoyable. Felix Bernard’s “Winter Wonderland” in Phillip Evry’s arrangement has imaginative moving parts and imitation, with a quote from “Jingle Bells” thrown in!

The 9-lady choir “Choral Belles” followed with a selection of Purcell, The Carpenters and a haunting solo by choirmistress Amie Boyd, all performed with backing tracks; they are looking for an accompanist (I was tempted but my wife caught my eye). A varied and entertaining slot, accurate part singing and engagingly presented.

The recorder trio “Retweet” is also led by Amie, and after an antiphonal opening played Lance Eccles “Aviary”; in 3 movements, “Dodo” and “Condor” featured gently flowing lines and swooping melodies, whereas “Moa” had a more lively and staccato feel. This was followed by “Westward Suite” by the celebrated recorder composer Rosemary Robinson, who was there for the occasion. Opening with a fanfare which starts in 5/4 time, we then had a melodious “Carol”, a very lively and rhythmic “Dance”, a poignant “Lament” ending on an open 4th, and a “Gigue” in 6/8.

“Choral Belles” then followed in Christmas mode with “Winds through the Olive Trees”, “Silent Night”, Britten’s “Dei Gratis” and lastly and indispensably Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”!

Back to HERO, Neils Gade’s “Christmas Tree March” is lively and jovial, and “Christmas Bells” starts with some gorgeously resonant bass notes; tuneful pieces which capture the Christmas spirit, deftly arranged by Sheila Richards. “Coventry Carol” followed – in the original 15th century 3-part version with very effective open 5ths, free barlines and tierce de Picardie.

“Riu riu chiu” is a Spanish villancico based on the call of a nightingale or maybe kingfisher, bird fanciers can decide, probably by one Mateo Flecha the elder 1481-1553, which starts with a bass figure (maybe it was a bittern?) and continues with 4-part harmony and a short canon.

“Christmas Twofers” by Steve Marshall consists of 3 pieces, each of which combine 2 Christmas carols; no. 2 combines “In the Bleak Midwinter” with “O Little Town” in an ingenious and attractive arrangement. Mozart’s “Hallelujah” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” canons continued the contrapuntal theme and brought HERO’s programme to a joyful close.

The concert ended with the combined forces of HERO, Choral Belles and the audience in an exuberant performance of “Hey Father Christmas!”, composer unknown – not Sister Annunciata’s version (bye the bye neither is she Mr. Rees-Mogg’s celebrated sibling). Performers and audience departed, fortified by good spirits against dismal weather and politics!

Review by R. Tempest

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