Aberdeen Bach Choir: In Memoriam Benjamin Britten

28 April 2013 St Machar's Cathedral

November 22nd 2013 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. For their Spring Recital this year, Aberdeen Bach Choir under their gifted conductor Peter Parfitt decided to celebrate this important anniversary with a concert entitled In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. The performance brought together the Bach Choir, Aberdeen Sinfonietta, leader Bryan Dargie, and special guest organist, Simon Nieminski from St. Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Edinburgh. Such were the fundamentals of what was to prove one of the Bach Choir’s most colourful and adventurous musical endeavours. The five works in the programme covered an astonishing range of sound worlds, each one special and even unique in the way it exploited vocal or instrumental resources.

The concert began in dazzling form with Britten’s Te Deum in C using choir and organ. In this work Simon Nieminski’s organ playing really made me sit up and take notice. It powered upwards from intricate and forceful pedals and into the heights matched by glorious upward striving declamations from the choir. Expressive delivery of the text by the choir supported by sizzling organ playing gave powerful new impact to an ancient format. The soprano solo sung with fabulous clarity by Lucy Hole had more than just a suggestion of the pure quality of a boy treble something of which Britten would surely have approved.

One of Britten’s teachers at the Royal College of Music was none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams and the second piece in the concert was one of his most exceptional compositions: An Oxford Elegy. In this piece our guest baritone soloist Edward Caswell does not sing – he acts as narrator of a text which is bound up with the legend of the Scholar Gypsy, the story of a brilliant Oxford student who disappeared mysteriously into the countryside. Did he join a band of gypsies? Did he get lost and die? Does his spirit still haunt the countryside a hundred or more years later? The verses speak in graphic terms of winter and summer bringing the snows or summer flowers to life as well as the “dreaming spires” of Oxford. Edward Caswell’s warm crystal clear narration brought the poetry vibrantly to life while the orchestral writing along with the frequently wordless chorus intensified the sense that the spirits of nature in the verse were themselves alive with the brilliant yet nebulous colours that the harmonies evoked so well in this performance. When the choir actually sang some of the words, the sense of mystery was further amplified. I cannot help thinking that this is a really weird piece but it is wonderful too, quite filmic in its impact and absolutely unique.

Arvo Pärt wrote quite a number of “tintinnabuli” works so they are therefore not unique in quite the same way and yet there is something about his music that you will not find anywhere else. Aberdeen Sinfonietta was conducted by Peter Parfitt in a hypnotically beautiful performance of Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten before the Bach Choir was joined once again by Simon Nieminski in Britten’s Te Deum in E. Both shorter and to some extent simpler than the Te Deum in C, it did contain some startling harmonic surprises and once again fine if shorter treble style soprano solos sung splendidly by Lucy Hole. 

I am not sure what the connection was between Britten and the Duruflé Requiem but by bringing together choir, organ, orchestra and soloists it provided a fabulously colourful summation of the entire concert.

Duruflé’s handling of the sound colours drawn from every element vocal or instrumental in this work is also quite unique. This performance brought the musical colours out to perfection. The trumpets that complemented soaring sopranos in the Kyrie, the organ blending into the cellos for the Domine, the shimmering yet skeletal strings in the Hostias beautifully sung by Edward Caswell, the rippling organ in the Sanctus leading into a wonderful crescendo, mezzo soprano Phillipa Thomas supported by Gareth John’s luscious cello solos in the Pie Jesu and so very much more. I loved the way that the organ using so many of its contrasting sound qualities became like a second orchestra in this piece while being totally blended with the other players and indeed the choir as well. I wonder if Britten, wherever he is, was able to hear this music – I am certain he would have been astonished and delighted.

Review contributed by Alan Cooper