Aberdeen Bach Choir at St Machar’s Cathedral April 26 2009

Bach’s Mass in B Minor is widely regarded as one of the composer’s supreme achievements. Started in 1733 for diplomatic reasons, it was finished in the very last years of Bach’s life, when he had already gone blind.

The performance of this seminal work may in fact have been one of the motives behind the formation of the Aberdeen Bach Choir in its original form almost a century ago.

In fact the Choir has performed just a handful of Bach’s short works since Gordon Jack the Choir’s Musical Director took up the position. However, as he pointed out in his programme notes to last night’s concert this is something that is being addressed.

Although the Choir seems to be top and bottom heavy at the moment and light in the middle – there were 75 sopranos and altos singing in St Machar’s Cathedral last night as opposed to 9 very brave tenors, the overall quality and depth of the Choir sounded satisfyingly authentic and ultimately very moving.

Four professional soloists - the Soprano Joanne Dexter, the Mezzo-Soprano Deborah Miles-Johnston, the Tenor Andrew King and the Bass Stephen Roberts accompanied by the Aberdeen Sinfonietta performed with energy and commitment in a work that can sometimes seem fickle - light and breezy one moment, dark and broody the next.

The Sinfonietta’s woodwind and brass sections deserve special praise, as does Roger Williams whose harpsichord formed an axis of strength around which all the solos and ensemble pieces came to thrilling life.

Review by Roddy Phillips, Press & Journal Monday 27 April 2009
Reproduced by kind permission of the author

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Next only to the incomparable St. Matthew Passion, Bach’s Mass in b minor is possibly his greatest and certainly his largest choral work. Although some of its sections are penned for standard four part chorus, the sopranos are often split, bringing the choral parts up to five or six where there are also two alto parts. The spectacular Hosannas written for full eight part double chorus present a special challenge for all the choral singers. Here they need, in a sense, to double the impact of their singing and this too against a dazzlingly powerful orchestral background topped off by baroque trumpets and timpani. In these Hosannas, the choir coped triumphantly on Sunday.

Conductor and musical director of the Bach Choir, Gordon Jack had decided on an unusual strategy to tackle any problems of balance in the choir by placing the huge drift of sopranos and altos at the back and bringing forward the less numerous male chorus to the front of the choir. This certainly seemed to help and especially in the first half of the performance, the tenors made a powerful impression, coming in strongly and precisely on cue while maintaining the clarity and strength of their performance throughout. Although relegated to the back of the cathedral, the sopranos still managed to soar right through the choral textures and the altos sounded ever rich and reliable too. However it was not really until the second half of the Mass that the basses were able to stamp their full authority on the performance. This came through firmly in the Sanctus where they succeeded in providing a fine sturdy rhythmic foundation for the rest of the chorus, easily pushing their way through the trumpets and timpani. Gordon Jack’s tactic certainly seemed to have paid off when one of the audience members who had been sitting right at the back of the cathedral told me that the balance of the choir had never sounded so good. Perhaps though, with the women at the back, the choir did not look quite so attractive.

Right from the start of the performance, the plangency and nobility of the music resounded both from the richness of the choral textures and from the fine playing of Aberdeen Sinfonietta which was once again teamed up with the Bach Choir in a truly classic combination. By the way, the last Sinfonietta concert in the Music Hall drew almost double the audience that the RSNO did last Thursday!

Bach’s instrumental colouring whether in this Mass or in the St Matthew Passion never ceases to amaze and bewitch the listener. The four superb soloists on Sunday had their performances heightened still further by the solo playing of some of our finest instrumentalists. Roger Williams on harpsichord and Gareth John on cello, the continuo group, gave many of the solos their special rhythmic impetus. Sometimes too, Gareth John’s cello would assume a more important role in blending with the other solo players. First violins, flute and cello provided intriguing colour for the glorious duet between soprano Joanne Dexter and tenor Andrew King. There were two lovely duets featuring Joanne Dexter again, this time with mezzo Deborah Miles-Johnson, and the two oboes and strings which accompanied the second of these surely doubled the impact of the voices. The oboe, bassoon and cello which accompanied baritone Stephen Roberts in the glorious highlight of his performance, the Aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum, made for an equally entrancing sound combination and not forgetting Bryan Dargie’s lissom violin accompaniment to Joanne Dexter’s Aria Laudamus te, near the beginning of the work, nor the full first violin section which complemented Deborah Miles- Johnson’s beautifully sung Agnus Dei near the end.

This was a long and tiring work for the choir but they rose creditably to the greater part of its challenges. The sheer astonishing variety of sound textures in the work made it seem to speed past and when the end came, I was still up for lots more. Congratulations to Gordon Jack, the Aberdeen Bach Choir, Aberdeen Sinfonietta and the four soloists for a really memorable performance.

Contributed by Alan Cooper