I Was Glad 28 April 2019 - Review

I recently purchased a book entitled ‘Englishness in Music’ by James Day. It contained a great deal of fascinating detail on composers from Elizabethan Times up to Britten and Tippett but having read it through, I did not feel that I had been much enlightened about what Englishness in Music actually is. I have long felt I can recognise it when I hear it, but actually defining it is far more difficult. Sunday’s magnificent performances by Aberdeen Bach Choir along with the lavish programme prepared with his customary musical discernment by the Choir’s gifted Musical Director Peter Parfitt, told me far more about the subject than any book ever could.

There were fifteen very different items in the programme. Three of them were not really related to the English Choral Music which made up the rest of the concert. Let me turn to these first. The organist who partnered the Bach Choir in the choral items was David Gerrard who has played with the Bach Choir before. I have deliberately said ‘partnered’ because ‘accompanied’ suggests that he had a secondary role in the performance and nothing could be farther from the truth. However there was a second talented organist involved in the performance. This was our own Dr Roger Williams who is currently organist and choirmaster at St Machar’s Cathedral. He played two modern virtuoso  organ solos by ‘Scottish’ composers: ‘King’s Toccata’ by John McLeod, born in Aberdeen but now based in Edinburgh and ‘Wild Mossy Mountains’ by Judith Weir CBE born into a Scottish Family but settled south of the border. In May 2015, she was confirmed as Master of the Queen’s Music following on from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. 

Both pieces have aspects of the 20th Century Toccata. John McLeod actually has ‘toccata’ in his title. Both works were dazzlingly virtuosic, the very essence of keyboard fireworks, and Roger Williams made sure that they exploded from the keyboards and pedals of the St Machar’s organ in the most spectacular way. Tempestuous runs, explosive chords and terrifyingly exciting colour blends of organ stops marked both works. McLeod’s piece was marked by its structural complexities which were nevertheless very firmly shaped. I loved the blend of modernity and early music that he achieved in this piece. Judith Weir’s piece was notable for its graphically atmospheric power. It was a wonderful painting in music of what its title suggests, ‘Wild Mossy Mountains’. Later in the programme Roger Williams had another job to do when he appeared as a duettist on the organ along with David Gerrard in ‘Viri Galilæi’ by Patrick Gowers (1946 – 2014).

There was a third piece in the programme that could not be classed as English Music. This was ‘The Beatitudes’ by Arvo Pärt. In this work, Peter Parfitt generously turned over the conducting to the James Lobban Conducting Scholar, Saskia Mucke. This was an unusual piece with its many moments of silence, its complex harmonic structuring and the balance between organ and choir. It was only near the end where the organ had a solo section that in its flourishes what we expect from the other works of this composer became just noticeable.

Let me now get down to the real meat and potatoes of Sunday’s performance where I thought that the choir and organ together were at their most delicious or their most spectacular. There was one composer that really hit the home run for me and that was Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. There was of course the final piece in the programme. It had given its title to the entire performance: ‘I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me’. It began with a marvellous blast of the trumpet from the organ and then the St Machar’s instrument in full cry. The choir had been singing all night. Surely they must have been tired. If they were, it did not show. The opening words from the chorus were absolutely electrifying. Parry’s magnificent harmonies were delivered with their full colours. The sopranos at full tilt delivered their ‘Vivat Regina’ followed by the full chorus. Quieter playing from the organ ushered in the second verse but the conclusion was every bit as magnificent as the opening. All that was excellent, but for me, the amazing highlight of the entire performance was the other piece by Parry, his marvellous ‘Blest Pair of Sirens’. At several places in the piece David Gerrard made the organ sound like a full orchestra. There were so many magnificent choral delights in this piece, for instance when each section of the choir, starting with the basses come in with the words, ‘And to our high-raised phantasy present’. Best of all though is the lovely melody launched by the female singers, ‘O may we soon again renew that song’. This for me is the very essence of Englishness in Music. It has nobility, gentility, commitment, warmth and affection woven right into it.

Many of the other works in the programme had equal delights to offer. There were the gorgeous choral harmonies in John Ireland’s ‘Greater Love Hath No Man’. The tenors floated in beautifully at the beginning. The short soprano and tenor solos were so well sung and again the organ playing gave the music its intrinsic colour. 

The soaring sopranos in the two pieces by Herbert Howells, ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis’ and then ‘Like as the Hart’ were lovely. I was impressed by the interweaving of the harmonies in the first and the beautifully well controlled quiet singing in the second. As the choir sang the ‘Mag and Nunc’, twilight was showing through the back window of the Cathedral and I was reminded of Choral Evensong – how marvellous was that?

‘Let All The World In Every Corner Sing’ by Vaughan Williams was tremendous with the organ providing both fanfares and carillons beneath the choir. The sheer strength of the choral singing matched Elgar’s imaginative melodic writing in ‘Give Unto The Lord’. Finzi’s ‘God Is Gone Up’ had a joyous organ fanfare to introduce its first verse then gentler music for the second with the organ promoting the return to a repeat of the opening.

Patrick Hadley’s ‘My Beloved Spake’ had delightful choral and organ colours to match its text but possibly the most unusual of all the pieces in the concert, ‘Viri Galilæi’ by Patrick Gowers offered organ duet with Roger Williams tinkling away at the top, solos for bass and tenor and explosions of vocal colour from the choir. It was a puzzling but fascinating piece.

There is one item I have not mentioned yet. It was the one that opened the concert, Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’. In every way it matched the pure excitement of Parry’s closing piece. Is Handel really an English composer? Possibly not, but this piece has long had its place at the very heart of our coronations. That is what we think of whenever we hear it – and surely you don’t get more English than that?

Alan Cooper