Aberdeen Bach Choir Christmas Concert 2011 - A Spotless Rose

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday, 4 December 2011

The quite exceptional degree of thought and inspiration that had obviously gone into the preparation of Sunday’s Christmas Concert by Aberdeen Bach Choir was once again reflected in the magnificent programme notes composed by the Choir’s musical director Peter Parfitt. Eighteen very different pieces of music from the middle ages to the twentieth century were ingeniously bound together by a series of equally diverse readings performed with admirable expressiveness and clarity by John and Margaret Hearne. This was far more than just a nine lessons and carols; I was reminded of one of those radio broadcasts from the 1950s in which words and music were interwoven to provide an almost symphonic whole that expounded its theme with astonishing cohesion and continuity.

There was far more than just sound in this performance too, the opening medieval carol, Angelus Ad Virginem, was presented with visual drama too with the male chorus in their seats at the front while the female chorus processed from the back of the darkened Cathedral carrying candles possibly symbolising Mary, the “Queen of Virgins Bright”.

The words of St. Luke writing of the Annunciation segued naturally into the Choir’s fine performance of Anton Bruckner’s Ave Maria. The dramatic control of varied dynamics in this piece underlined the glorious colours of Bruckner’s music to perfection.

The Magnificat is usually performed in its English settings as part of a choral evensong but of course its connection to the Christmas story became obvious in Sunday’s context and the Bach Choir with guest organist John Challenger delivered the Herbert Howells setting with luminous commitment.

The female voices excelled in Patrick Hadley’s I Sing of a Maiden and the sense of antiphonal drama that opened the performance was brought to the fore again with the small solo ensembles placed round the Cathedral in There Is No Rose.

The beautiful setting of A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells was followed by Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin and the first half reached a glorious climax with the Choir’s resonant performance of Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God.

The sense of mystical glory delivered by this music was echoed in the second half when John Challenger gave his dazzlingly clean and clear performance of Messiaen’s Dieu Parmi Nous from La Nativité. The French composer Poulenc appeared four times in this half, beginning with Quem Vidistis which had something of the colour of a French rustic carol in it. Hodie Christus Natus Est had more of his angular style while O Magnum Mysterium had both warmth and mysticism and was sung with real depth of perception, surely the result of Peter Parfitt’s sympathy and understanding of the music which he has so ably transmitted to his singers.

Stephen Cleobury’s Joys Seven had loads of energy and conviction and William Mathias appeared twice with his splendidly spiky writing for choir and organ. His adrenalin charged Sir Christémas with its final celebratory shout brought this uniquely brilliant Christmas Concert to a triumphant conclusion.

Review contributed by Alan Cooper