Aberdeen Bach Choir: Music For All Seasons

27 April 2014 St Machar's Cathedral

Aberdeen Bach Choir’s Spring Concert played once again to a full-house. I wondered whether that was going to be the case since Sunday’s programme featured a wide selection of shorter pieces by a broad range of composers, some of them quite obscure, rather than just one or two large well-known works designed to draw a big audience. The Bach Choir themselves under their much admired conductor Peter Parfitt are obviously the big attraction and so once again St Machar’s Cathedral was full to capacity. The composers represented in a programme designed to take us on a musical journey through the Seasons of the Church Year ranged from John Taverner (c. 1490 – 1545) to Patrick Gowers born in 1936 and still alive today. Both of these composers represented English Music across a wide time span. Five more English composers graced the programme. Three were from the Victorian period: Dr Charles Steggall, S. S. Wesley and Sir John Stainer. One more, Herbert Howells, along with Gowers, represented the twentieth century, while Robert Parsons (c. 1530 -1570), was from the generation just after Taverner. Other choral composers included Sweelinck, Palestrina, J. S. Bach and Anton Bruckner. We were delighted to welcome back Simon Niemiński currently organist at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh. With such a distinguished organist playing in only five of the choral pieces it made sense to have him contribute a couple of organ solos to the programme. He chose two absolutely outstanding pieces, the first by J. S. Bach, and the second by Olivier Messiaen.

Charles Steggall was new to me but his grand motet, Remember Now Thy Creator with rich organ accompaniment had the sturdy melodic and harmonic language of fine English composers such as Parry, Stainer or his teacher Sterndale Bennett. This was the sort of music that demanded the full rich resonances of a large choir and here the Bach Choir gave of their very best.

Many of the other pieces were unaccompanied including the Ave Maria by Robert Parsons. The fine soaring sopranos were delightful in this piece and the choir produced some magnificent crescendo singing.

Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus Natus Est was a wonderfully celebratory Christmas piece. Fine lusty singing by the tenors set the pace and the rest of the choir rejoiced in a splendid carillon of sound. Simon Niemiński’s first interlude followed on perfectly from the Sweelinck. It was J. S. Bach’s chiming Chorale Prelude, In Dulci Jubilo BWV. 729.

Palestrina is associated in the minds of music students of my era as a kind of academic torture but his music actually sounds rather magnificent and there was a particularly rich performance of Surge Illuminare Jerusalem by all sections of the choir. Expressive use of dynamics was a crowning glory of Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est with, once again, magnificent crescendos.

One of the most challenging pieces for the choir must have been Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing by Herbert Howells. The often dissonant harmonies could easily affect the tuning of the choir but they did spectacularly well.

The second half of the concert began with Dum Transisset Sabbatum by John Taverner who lived in dangerous times for church musicians. Peter Parfitt’s as ever excellent programme note mentions the names of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell two characters it was best to steer clear of at the time. Taverner’s piece came across well with fine cantor solos sung by tenor Richard Coleman.

Blessed be the God and Father by Samuel Sebastian Wesley was a piece with full orchestral splendour using the organ, the sopranos, altos and male voices in sequence rather as an orchestral composer might do with different instruments. The choir must have been getting tired by now but there was no sense of that as every section sang at full tilt.

Messiaen’s Transport de Joie was the second offering from organist Simon Niemiński. This was a fabulous virtuoso performance of what was in fact one of the composer’s most palatable pieces. Once again there was a perfect follow on with Viri Galilaei by Patrick Gowers. With the high tintinnabulation of the organ and fine solos from Bruce Irvine and Ben Wightman this was the most spectacular work in the entire programme.

Peter Parfitt handed over the conducting for Bach’s large scale motet, Der Geist Hilft to Flora Bramwell who in the past has appeared as a vocal soloist and currently conducts the Deeside Choristers. The organ at first sounded almost subliminal, and then it blossomed forth, and so did the choir as they reached the conclusion of the work giving us a truly impressive Bach performance.

The final motet in the programme harked back in a sense to the opening because here was another full blooded Victorian work, I Saw the Lord by Stainer. Were the choir tired yet? Obviously not; they sang with every bit as much punch and enthusiasm as they had at the start. Well done everybody!

Review contributed by Alan Cooper