Aberdeen Bach Choir: A Venetian Christmas

Monteverdi String Band

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts

Peter Parfitt: Musical Director

Sunday 7 December 2014 St Machar's Cathedral

This year’s December Concert by Aberdeen Bach Choir was a complete sell-out and St Machar’s was packed to capacity. It was one of their most adventurous and ambitious productions ever: in the second part, a reconstruction of the Second Vespers of Christmas as would have been performed in St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, during the mid-seventeenth century, preceded in the first half by a selection of vocal and instrumental music by Giovanni Gabrieli with just one instrumental Canzon by Claudio Merulo.

The Aberdeen Bach Choir was supported by two of Britain’s finest period instrumental ensembles: Monteverdi String Band and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts along with Drew Tulloch resplendent on chamber organ. These full forces were conducted by the Bach Choir’s Musical Director Peter Parfitt though one item, Gabrieli’s Beata Es Virgo was directed by the current James Lobban Conducting Scholar, Erik Andreas Stensholt who also conducted the semi chorus up in the balcony at the back of the Cathedral.

Soloists singing from the side balcony included guest singers, bass Andrew Morrison and a superb light ecclesiastical tenor, Tim Coleman. They were the focus of most of the Antiphons in the second part of the concert. I was delighted to see among the instrumentalists both a chitarrone played by David Miller and a theorbo played by Eligio Luis Quinteiro. The sound of these instruments is so delicate that they simply cannot compete with brass instruments or a huge choir in full voice so they became a purely visual attraction but I need not have worried because even in Gabrieli’s motet O Jesu Mi Dulcissime where the singing was gentler and more restrained the sound of both instruments managed to come through and in the second half of the concert where the chitarrone was in the side gallery along with the bass violin and the principal vocal soloists, it really came magnificently into its own.

The concert opened with Gabrieli’s Christmas motet, Hodie Christus Natus Est. The darker sounds of the lower voices were suddenly pierced through with shafts of vocal lightening as the high sopranos joined in the Alleluias sounding not unlike boys’ voices which would have been used originally in the performances at St Mark’s.

My one general reservation was whether such a large choir was entirely suited to this music. I suspect it was conceived by the composers for much smaller vocal groups. The smaller semi-choruses sounded much clearer and more transparent and I believe that was what was really required and could not possibly be achieved with a very large choir. I have one other more serious reservation about Sunday’s performance and that was about the use of the large male choir for the plainchant sections. They did their best but were never properly well-focused. The much smaller semi-chorus was a great deal better in this respect as well.

As one would expect with two such eminent instrumental ensembles, the various Canzons that punctuated the performance were absolutely terrific. I particularly enjoyed those by Gioseffi Guami where strings and brass indulged in the to and fro of conversation and in these pieces the music was often wonderfully ornate.
The second half of the concert introduced some astonishingly complex and varied antiphonal effects. To select just one example, Monteverdi’s Confitebor Tibi had vocal solos, quartets, full chorus at the front and semi-chorus singing from the rear gallery. Not just voices but instruments seeming to come from all quarters and in this piece the wonderful chitarrone really came into its own. It required something of a tour de force from Peter Parfitt to keep the whole thing flowing smoothly together but he achieved this brilliantly.

I loved the Magnificat by Cavalli. He is one of my favourite opera composers I think especially of La Calisto and Cavalli’s Magnificat with its two tenors, Tim Coleman and his dad Richard and with an ornate bass solo from Andrew Morrison it certainly had delicious echos of the operatic world.

Could I add just one final reservation? The concert was more than generous in length. Better have the audience wishing there had been more than feeling surfeited. Perhaps the second half on its own would have been easier to digest? Still well done Bach Choir for managing to cope unflaggingly with such a big big sing!

Review contributed by Alan Cooper