Aberdeen Bach Choir Viennese Masses

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday, 2 December 2012

As ever, conductor Peter Parfitt’s lavish programme note, hugely informative, intriguing and thought provoking, placed the three Masses and two instrumental “interludes” which we were about to hear on Sunday within their proper context. Relatively short Mass settings by Schubert and Mozart were followed in the second half by a considerably more expansive work by Michael Haydn, the Missa Trinitatis. This work is of special significance for the Aberdeen Bach Choir since in 1969 they gave the first performance of it in modern times in an edition by Dr Alison Shiel whose association with the Choir goes back many years.

The two halves of the concert were balanced by one Epistle Sonata for string orchestra and organ set between the Schubert and Mozart Masses and then another between the Gloria and Credo of Michael Haydn’s Missa Trinitatis. These two delicately crafted instrumental works by Mozart were played with notable elegance by Aberdeen Sinfonietta, leader Bryan Dargie, and organist Drew Tulloch. They served as refreshing palate cleansers between the much richer musical fare of the Masses – and wonderfully rich and fulfilling indeed were all three.

It was Schubert’s delectable choral writing in his Mass in G that opened Sunday’s performance. This was the work that so many people in the audience told me after the concert that they had enjoyed most. Certainly Schubert’s blend of melody and warmly coloured harmonies were beautifully unfolded for us by the huge Bach Choir. Almost at once too we were privileged to enjoy the fabulous singing of the principal soprano soloist, Elinor Rolfe Johnson. Her voice had an exemplary shining clarity as she soared effortlessly again and again to the heights. Peter Parfitt’s introductory note drew our attention both to the differences in settings of the Mass as music developed in Vienna over the years but to similarities as well. One of these I have always noticed is the delicious music often centred on vocal soloists in settings of the Benedictus. Schubert’s setting was no exception. I was astonished to discover that this year’s line-up of soloists were all current students from the RCS in Glasgow. The quality of their performance would not have been out of place among top-flight professionals. Whoever selected them had done a marvellous job.

In Schubert’s Benedictus we were able to enjoy superb singing from tenor Luperci De Souza and baritone Dominic Barberi, both wonderfully smooth and clear in addition to the amazing soprano. We would have to wait for Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D, K194 to get a chance to hear the equally fine mezzo Catriona Morison.

The soloists in the Mozart Mass were more often to be found in ensemble and the finest examples of this were once again in the lovely Benedictus but also in the Agnus Dei. Mozart’s choral and orchestral writing is marvellously well balanced and this came out splendidly in Sunday’s performance in which the choral blend was rich yet transparent too. Often in the Schubert Mass and in Michael Haydn’s Missa Trinitatis it was the lovely clear-soaring soprano singing that really hit the spot although I must compliment the tenors as well for their performance in the Haydn. Actually, the entire choir deserves praise for their powerful and totally unflagging singing which illuminated the glorious contrapuntal conclusions of so many sections of the Haydn Mass.

However for me the highlight of the entire performance came with the duets for two sopranos when Elinor Rolfe Johnson was joined by Jillian Bain Christie. Yes, once again it was the Benedictus where the two glorious voices were entwined as Drew Tulloch’s organ playing danced joyfully along with them and the strings added dabs of colour beneath – well worth coming out on a freezing night just to hear that.

Review contributed by Alan Cooper