Musical Director: GORDON JACK

December Recital St. Machar’s Cathedral Sunday 2 December 2007

Aberdeen Bach Choir’s latest concert offered a startling selection of music spanning over five hundred years, from a setting of the Ave Maria composed in around 1500 by Josquin des Prés to O magnum mysterium by the American composer Morten Lauridsen who was here in Aberdeen just three weeks ago for several days of choral concerts and workshops promoted by Aberdeen University Music in collaboration with the s-o-u-n-d festival.

The Bach Choir’s astonishing journey across the broad vista of western music began with a magnificent piece for choir and organ by Dietrich Buxtehude marking the 300th anniversary of the composer’s death. Considering that Buxtehude was the pre-eminent organist of his day it was not surprising to find that Das Neugeborne Kindelein had an extensive and beautifully crafted organ part that was far more than a mere accompaniment. It offered luscious chording and at one point telling echo effects consummately performed by Drew Tulloch. The fullness of the organ textures was matched by lavish vocal writing with rich harmonies and sturdy counterpoint all delivered in great style by the Bach Choir.

J. S. Bach’s O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, a short but exquisite motet, followed at once. It boasted another superb if more subtle organ part with great singing by the choir of one of Bach’s wonderfully moving and expansive melodies made extra special by the strong tenor leads and the weightless soaring of the sopranos.

Music by four very different composers with characteristic styles represented Music in honour of the Virgin Mary. Tchaikowski’s Hymn to the Virgin sung unaccompanied in Russian showed some of the characteristics of Orthodox Church music with incisive tenor lines and firm bass parts while the attractive melody of Grieg’s Ave maris stella was leavened by nice key changes and with the spotlight falling sometimes on the male and sometimes on the female voices. Poulenc’s Salve Regina eschewed the composer’s often whimsical style in favour of a more serious approach with a definite liturgical flavour though the composer’s individualism did show through in the melodic writing towards the end. The choir had to face far more treacherous key changes and difficult harmonies in Górecki’s Totus Tuus but they emerged triumphant with a beautifully colourful and moving performance marked by superbly controlled contrasts in dynamics.

Settings of the Ave Maria by Josquin des Prés, Verdi, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky proved the amazing versatility and stamina of the choir. Josquin des Prés sounded distinctive yet remarkably modern, Verdi deeply felt, Rachmaninov full of the rich dark hues of Orthodox Church music and Stravinsky, short and to the point.

Another four composers offered their settings of O magnum mysterium. The choir were beginning to sound just a little tired in Palestrina’s setting but the magnificent version by Gabrieli with its contrasting choirs of high and low voices seemed to give them second wind. It carried them through to Poulenc’s wonderfully atmospheric setting. The harmonies surrounding the word “mysterium” were marvellous. Finally they reached Morten Lauridsen’s unique blend of ancient and modern that gives his harmonies such a subtle array of colours and they did a fine job of bringing out the inner glow of his music.

Earlier in the concert, special guest soloist Stewart Kempster gave an exemplary performance of four popular classics: Handel’s aria Where ere you walk, Wagner’s O Star of Eve, John Irelands beautiful setting of Masefield’s poem Sea Fever and to finish, Malotte’s Lord's Prayer. His impeccable diction, rich warm genuine baritone timbre and thoughtful interpretations surely made these classics even more appealing than they already were.

Kempster joined the chorus in the final item of a splendid evening’s entertainment: the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams. From the mysterious and moving opening, The truth sent from above with the baritone solo coloured by the distant echoing of the wordless chorus to the glorious chiming of the final carols, this music summed up what is best in the traditional English Christmas.

Congratulations to the Bach Choir and to their director Gordon Jack for this marathon performance of some of the world’s finest short choral music and for the opportunity of hearing it live.


Review contributed by Alan G. Cooper