The King Shall Rejoice - Review

Aberdeen Bach Choir     Musical Director Dr Paul Tierney

St Machar’s Cathedral, Old Aberdeen     Sunday 30th April 2023

Aberdeen Sinfonietta, Leader Bryan Dargie

Zoe Drummond Soprano
Amy Strachan Soprano
Heather Ireson Mezzo-Soprano
William Searle Tenor
Andrew McTaggart Baritone

G. F. Handel (1685 – 1759)
The King Shall Rejoice HWV 260 (Coronation Anthem)

J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750)
Magnificat in D Major BWV 243

F. J. Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Missa in Tempore Belli (Paukenmesse) ‘Mass in Time of War’

Aberdeen Bach Choir drew a packed house to their April Concert in St Machar’s Cathedral. In a popular programme, the first work, Handel’s Coronation Anthem, The King Shall Rejoice was so appropriate for the time, being performed about a week before the Coronation of our new King, Charles III. What a glorious celebratory piece it was, with the Bach Choir and Aberdeen Sinfonietta giving of their very best, instruments and voices blended perfectly together under the responsive and noticeably detailed direction of conductor Dr Paul Tierney.

The opening section, The King Shall Rejoice from whence the overall title of the piece, began with a strong jubilant orchestra in true Handelian style: strings, including the forward drive of cellos with bass, oboe, trumpets and timpani. When the choir entered, it was with joyful enthusiasm – the very richest well balanced singing. The tenors opened Exceeding Glad Shall He Be and then we heard a warm sounding wave of female voices. Glory and Great Worship had strongly held long notes and then Thou Hast Prevented Him brought tenors and altos to the forefront. The final Alleluia rang out joyfully with basses and altos and in the orchestra, with trumpets and timpani shining through. Perhaps the Bach Choir had as many singers as Handel himself. Not such a huge orchestra though, but the Sinfonietta certainly filled the Cathedral with their ringing sound wall.

Of course the concert ended with Haydn’s Paukenmesse and great it was too, but for me, the special highlight of the performance was J. S. Bach’s Magnificat in D Major BWV 243. We had five soloists, two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass. What is particularly great about Bach is the way in which he provides such perfect instrumental backings for his soloists, all of them different and working so well. The choir opened the work with Magnificat anima mea dominum so full of praise and supported by trumpets, flutes and with the rhythmic pulse of the lower strings standing out splendidly. The creamy toned ‘second soprano’ Amy Strachan sang Et exsultavit and then Quia respexit had the clear silver soprano tones of Zoe Drummond. The chorus exulted in the stirring music of Omnes generationes, then it was the turn of bass baritone Andrew McTaggart to deliver Quia fecit mihi magna. His very stance and expectant facial expression made me think, “This will be good” and so it was, his strong smooth singing supported by cello and organ. The little keyboard organ played by David Gerrard was fine, but why not use the Cathedral’s fine Willis Organ?

Et miserecordia, a duet for alto, Heather Ireson, and tenor William Searle had flute, strings and organ with the double bass driving the rhythm onward.

The choir were back in the forefront with Fecit potentiam, ornate choral music with tenors and altos deserving of particular praise. Strings and organ supported tenor William Searle in his equally ornate aria Deposuit potentes. He gave a wonderfully outgoing performance.

However not just for her excellent performance, but for the music itself, it was Heather Ireson in Esurientes implevit bonis supported by duetting flutes that was, for me, the highlight of the entire performance. This piece is so good that I have often heard it performed on its own without the rest of the work.

Brilliant as well was Suscepit Israel with both sopranos and mezzo. This splendid vocal trio were supported by organ, cello and oboe. The final two sections brought the choir forward again. Here the basses in the choir gave us an excellent opening. For the final section we had trumpets, flutes and oboe coming through boldly with the choir having upward rising, not quite whoops, but something as enthusiastic from Bach. A fantastic conclusion to a sensational performance from everybody, choir, soloists and orchestra and not forgetting Paul Tierney who proved himself to be absolutely on top of every detail.

After the interval, the final section of the performance was devoted to Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War). Sometimes, after an interval, performers can go off the boil, but not the Bach Choir, Sinfonietta or indeed the remaining four soloists. They are all so much better than that. The opening Kyrie of the Mass had the choir in fine full voice. Haydn uses the solo voices in interesting ways. They are in a sense peppered throughout the work. Thus, Zoe Drummond offered the clarity of her voice to the Kyrie, then later we had the full quartet of solo voices involved. Haydn writes very differently from Bach and so often in this work the choir and orchestra have to be finely woven together – and indeed they were. In Andrew McTaggart’s aria Qui tollis peccata mundi his beautifully smooth bass singing was blended with a delicious melody from the cellos.

The choir were in full celebratory mood in the Sanctus and the Credo which in some other pieces can seem, shall I say monotonous, was rescued brilliantly from that by Haydn’s peppering the music with solos. Both choir and soloists brought the Et resurrexit boldly to life.

The Benedictus was unusual. The quartet of soloists was to be expected here but the jumpy rhythmic writing was a surprise.

The finale, Agnus Dei was the most unusual as well as the most famous part of the work. The timpani at first seemed far off, then came right to the front with blazing trumpets also suggesting war. It was a fine performance of an astonishing work, as up to date, if you watch the news, than when it was first composed. There are quite a number of leaders throughout the world today who should be listening to the words Dona nobis pacem, don’t you think?

contributed by Alan Cooper