Te Deum Laudamus

Settings of the Te Deum by British Composers from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 30 April 2017

Since Aberdeen Bach Choir was constituted in its present form by Willan Swainson in 1956 and gave its first performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in St Machar’s Cathedral on the 17th December 1956, we can still say that until the end of this year, the Choir continues to celebrate its Sixtieth Anniversary. I would therefore have expected the current Musical Director Peter Parfitt to choose something really special for his Spring Concert – and that indeed is exactly what he did. The programme explored the Te Deum sung in English in settings by seven different British Composers ranging from Thomas Tallis to William Walton. We have to say British rather than English since C. V. Stanford was Irish, having been born in Dublin, but I suspect that many Anglicans would like to claim him as one of their own.

There was a recent programme on the History Channel in which Professor David Starkey explored English Church music from its beginnings to the present day. Today’s performance by the Bach Choir managed to achieve much the same thing in a purer way by selecting just one musical format, the Te Deum and demonstrating how it changed radically from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. The variety of musical styles explained so helpfully by Peter Parfitt’s lavishly presented programme and performed magnificently by the Bach Choir took us on a thrilling and wonderfully revealing musical journey across the centuries. Our journey started in a period when music somehow survived the turmoil of Catholic versus Protestant regimes perhaps because composers like Tallis and Byrd were just too good to have been prosecuted by Queen Elizabeth I or her predecessors. They recognised true talent when they heard it. In the twentieth century some of the music could well have been enjoyed in the happy and relaxed atmosphere of a Choral Evensong (even though as the programme informed us the Te Deum in the Anglican tradition was more closely associated with Matins).

The performance opened with the Te Deum laudamus by Thomas Tallis. The full choir sang from the rear of the Cathedral behind the congregation and a quartet of soloists for three sections of the music were situated on the raised platform at the side of the Cathedral. This gave a delicious sense of the antiphonal qualities of Tallis’s music. The full choir sang with praiseworthy clarity as they delivered the text and the solo quartet was very nicely balanced.

There were quite a number of solo parts throughout the performance and I thought Peter Parfitt had selected the voices with remarkable skill. Whether solos or in groups they fitted their parts so well. There were fifteen soloists in all chosen from the choir, every one worthy of praise although there is no room to mention them all.

William Byrd’s Te Deum is more complex in its part writing than that of Tallis. The beautifully clear and limpid singing of the first sopranos was particularly alluring and the rich blend of male voices was really exciting to hear. The complexities of the music were put across with remarkable clarity from such a large choir. I was thoroughly impressed by the singing and by Peter Parfitt’s steely control.

The first two works were sung a cappella but since all the others had organ accompaniment it was time to hear from our virtuoso guest organist David Gerrard. His initial offering was another work by William Byrd, his Fantasie, MB 46. Its counterpoint matched the complexities of the vocal music we had just heard. The single manual playing with only the simplest touches here and there from the pedals was remarkably rich in its decorative fingering. The central section of the piece developed an almost dance-like quality while the conclusion became ever more richly complex.

Purcell’s Te Deum may have had a rich instrumental accompaniment but David Gerrard accomplished this with considerable brio on the organ imitating both brass and strings. This was the piece which had most of the solo parts. Almost the entire front row of the first sopranos took part. It would be wrong to suggest that this setting was operatic but it was certainly theatrical and perhaps Purcell’s theatrical work had its influence on this music. This was the piece which most impressed me in the first part of the concert but I have always liked Purcell.

After the interval we were in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century with Stanford’s Te Deum. His setting was more hymn-like concentrating more on harmony with hardly any contrapuntal writing. The singing was rich, well balanced and the text of the Te Deum came through with exceptional clarity. I liked David Gerrard’s changes of organ registrations which matched the changes of mood in the singing splendidly well.

Much of the Te Deum by Vaughan Williams had sturdy unison passages and the use of melisma was also paramount. These sections only made the harmonised passages stand out even more brilliantly.

In preparation for the Te Deum by Herbert Howells, David Gerrard introduced it by playing Howells’s Psalm Prelude, Op.32 no.1.  It was essentially a quiet and meditative piece with an almost pastoral feel although the harmonies delivered a definite mystical sheen. Not a particularly complex piece on the surface it had remarkable depths of feeling and spirituality. I loved it.

Howells’s Te Deum matched the organ piece rather well. With beautiful harmonies sung richly by the choir there was a gentleness and meditative feeling to the music although the soaring sopranos and a magnificent crescendo towards the conclusion added an element of colour and excitement.

These last three pieces might well be chosen for a Choral Evensong supposing that the Cathedral Choir in question could match the Bach Choir. The final two pieces both by William Walton were from a totally different musical world however. Crown Imperial is a magnificent march which lives up to its title. Pomp and Circumstance would be great if Elgar had not got in there first. David Gerrard played it with proper aplomb. He seemed to be enjoying playing it every bit as much as we in the congregation did and from the smiles on the faces of many in the choir, they were obviously transported by Gerrard’s performance as well.

Walton’s eight part Te Deum projected a sense of occasion every bit as exciting as his Crown Imperial. The interplay between the male and female voices was magnificent and this arrangement for choir and organ by Simon Preston is surely as good as it gets.

contributed by Alan Cooper