Sunday, 06 December 2009

In this year of Homecoming Scotland, Aberdeen Bach Choir’s worthy contribution was a programme celebrating St. Machar, performed in the very Cathedral which bears his name, along with two works that honoured the memory of Robert Burns the songwriter. The first two pieces were by Scottish composers. John McLeod was born and educated in Aberdeen while Ken Johnston though originally from Glasgow, spent his formative years in the City. The third composer John Gardner hails originally from Manchester.

John McLeod’s The Chronicle of St Machar – a Cantata is a work of tremendous drama and intense atmosphere conceived on an epic scale. Its forces comprise a baritone soloist, a large adult choir, a children’s chorus, piano, organ and a full orchestra with an important percussion section that even includes a spring from a Saab car; the composer insists on a Saab to get just the right sound. Conductor Gordon Jack did a heroic job in marshalling all these forces together. He sent subtle signals just when required to assistant conductor Morag Simpson who was in charge of the children’s chorus - the sixteen strong Culter Choristers. He also cued in Roger Williams who added so many inspirational atmospheric colours on the organ, in the Gloria for instance, while pianist Drew Tulloch introduced The Sacred Island which with fabulous warm string playing led straight into the emotional heart of the work, A Vision of Iona with its heart melting melodic writing.

At the core of the work too was baritone soloist Jeremy Huw Williams. He bound the whole story together with telling emotional delivery and the most impeccable diction. His strong warm-hearted singing created much of the stunning impact made by A Vision of Iona.

Time and again the children’s chorus brought a sense of spine tingling joy and wonder to the performance; for instance in The First Miracle: “Little Boy – lift up your head” or St Columba’s prayer, “Deep peace of the rushing wave”. Every so often too, bells, triangle, gong or bass drum would magic wonderful touches of mystical colour and meaning from the brilliant orchestral writing skilfully brought to life on Sunday by the City of Glasgow Symphony Orchestra; and of course in the Deus Pater Credentium and also near the end of the work, that Saab spring added its extraordinary mystical voice to the music. There was a fantastic performance from the Bach Choir throughout and the work ended in a joyous carillon clamour of bells, voices and orchestra. The unfettered imagination of the scoring in this work might have impressed even Berlioz. 
From St Machar to Robert Burns and to Love is like the Melody - four magnificent settings of the Bard’s songs by Ken Johnston (actually five since the first item wove two songs together in marvellous symbiosis). The children’s chorus had an important part to play in these songs and Ken Johnston is such a brilliant arranger that even when things went awry for just a moment, the music still sounded great. His arrangements are often witty, for instance The Ploughman with its wonderful cross rhythms or ravishingly beautiful like Afton Water with its writing for flute or the hummed background with which the adult choir so subtly and warmly backed the fresh sound of the children’s voices. The children’s choir too, singing in harmony, made a delicious contribution to A Red, Red Rose.

Ken Johnston’s settings were certainly sublime and it would be quite wrong to call John Gardner’s piece ridiculous. Nevertheless, I was not nearly so impressed with A Burns Sequence. I had some problems with the word settings and I suspect the choir did too. The orchestra played well but I felt the choir’s hearts were just not in this music and frankly neither was mine. There were some fine points, Chris Barr’s delicately beautiful tenor singing or the fiddle solos by leader Justine Watts for instance, but I’m sorry, especially after such a magnificent performance of Ken Johnston’s glorious settings, this music just left me stone cold. 

Review kindly contributed by Alan Cooper