Messes Solennelles

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 24 April 2016

Aberdeen Bach Choir’s Spring Concert turned out to be a masterful showpiece for the choir along with their fabulous guest organist David Gerrard. Entitled Messes Solennelles, the core of Sunday’s performance of twentieth century French devotional music were two Choral Masses, the first by Louis Vierne, the second by Jean Langlais. Both are brilliantly imaginative and colourful examples of choral writing which, unless you count Richard Coleman’s two brief solo introductions to the Glorias (splendidly well sung, by the way), had no solo parts. The huge choir therefore was in the spotlight virtually throughout the entire performance. They sang with unflagging brilliance. Guest organist David Gerrard did have two solos, allowing brief respites for the choral singers. These organ interludes, inserted between the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei of the Masses, were preceded in each case by two short and attractive choral motets by Maurice Duruflé. These motets were conducted by Kathleen Cronie, the current James Lobban Conducting Scholar. There was a fourth interlude between the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei of the Mass by Jean Langlais. This was Messiaen’s only choral work, the Motet, O Sacrum Convivium and like the Masses themselves, it was conducted by the Bach Choir’s first class musical director Peter Parfitt.

Both Masses begin with startlingly powerful introductions for organ solo. David Gerrard made an immediate impact on the audience with these introductions especially with the pedals driving the music forward in the Messe Solennelle by Louis Vierne. With an organ diminuendo, the basses entered, rich sounding and well controlled followed in order by the rest of the chorus, tenors, altos and finally the sopranos. Stabbed organ chords drove the music onward, an effect that was to reappear even more excitingly in the Sanctus.
In the Gloria, Peter Parfitt brought out the different sounding sections of the chorus splendidly well adding variety to the music while the richness of the full choir at the high points of the Sanctus was wholly invigorating.

The organ introduction to the Benedictus was meditative matched by the varied choral textures but the climax of the music which came with the Hosanna in Excelsis ensured feelings of tremendous rising excitement.
Vierne’s Agnus Dei was marked by a transparency and luminosity in the organ playing which Peter Parfitt ensured was mirrored perfectly in the choral singing.

The Messe Solennelle by Jean Langlais was very different - more modern, more challenging perhaps but also more exciting; the choir excelled in this piece. Both the organ music and the choral writing of the Kyrie had a windblown rhythmic surge with chords that suggested the kind of mysterious aura you also find in music by Messiaen.

The Gloria was powerful with dramatic playing from the organ. The Sanctus was fast moving with explosive singing and as the programme note said, a top C for the sopranos to sing. They did splendidly well both in the Gloria and where it was repeated at the conclusion of the Benedictus. Before that, the female voices were supported by beautiful luminous organ tones.

Quite unlike Vierne’s version of the Agnus Dei, the setting by Jean Langlais had descending passages sounding almost menacing for both organ and chorus with a sense of almost desperate pleading conveyed by the harmonies until finally the organ came to rest magnificently on its long held A major chord. Composed in 1949 just after the traumas of the Second World War, this setting of the words Dona nobis pacem made perfect sense in that historical context.

A very different sense of mystery and of portent was conveyed powerfully in David Gerrard’s thrilling performance of Messiaen’s Apparition de L’Église Eternelle, the first of his two organ solos in Sunday’s concert. In the Choral Phrygien by Jehan Alain, the principal melodic interest was maintained with admirable clarity on various stops, above the harmonies beneath – another magnificent performance.

Of the four Motets by Duruflé, the most instantly attractive was Ubi Caritas with its beautifully sung plainsong melody. Tota Pulchra Es was sung by the female chorus, Tu Es Petrus was excitingly fast and in contrast Tantum Ergo was carefully well breathed.

Best of the extra pieces however had to be Messiaen’s lovely Motet O Sacrum Convivium conducted with complete understanding by Peter Parfitt. As the programme note promised, this was music that conveyed “utter tranquillity and peace”.          

contributed by Alan Cooper