W.A. Mozart Vesperae Solennes De Confessore K339 & Requiem K626

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 6 December 2015

A capacity audience packed St Machar’s Cathedral for Aberdeen Bach Choir’s alluring December Concert - an all Mozart programme. The Solemn Vespers – Vesperae Solennes De Confessore K339 is not as well known as the second work in the programme, one of the most popular in the entire repertoire, the Requiem K626. As always, the Bach Choir’s Musical Director Peter Parfitt had compiled a remarkably opulent programme that detailed almost everything you would ever need to know about the background to the music. I never throw out his programmes. In particular, he explained exactly how much of the Requiem was the work of Mozart alone and how much was composed by Süßmayr who was hired by Mozart’s widow Konstanza to complete the work left unfinished after Mozart’s death. Peter Parfitt also reminds us quite correctly that before his death, Mozart had discussed the work at length with Süßmayr who was probably writing down the score according to the bedridden Mozart’s instructions. We will never know for sure how much of the Requiem is entirely the result of Süβmayer’s own independent musical imagination and to what extent he was following Mozart’s wishes. However, Peter Parfitt’s comments before each section of the Requiem are certainly the best and most informative it will ever be possible to get.

The performance itself was one of the finest I can remember in the entire history of the Bach Choir. The choir was so perfectly disciplined, so well balanced. There was something approaching one hundred and thirty singers behind the orchestra. The richness of the choral sound from free soaring sopranos or mellow altos to beefy basses and incisive tenors was matched by the overall sleekness of the vocal blend that Peter Parfitt was able to coax from his choir. Entries were clean and clear and despite the rapidity with which Mozart ploughs through the texts especially in the Vespers, the Latin words came through with remarkable clarity.

Aberdeen Sinfonietta were on top form too often playing with amazing vehemence but with perfect precision too, the strings for example in the Dies Irae of the Requiem – wow, they were just great to watch as well as to hear.

The four soloists were beautifully well balanced in their quartet singing which plays such an important role in the Vespers. Soprano Eilidh McEwan is given most solo prominence in the Vespers particularly in the Laudate Dominum. She had a purity of tone and relaxed top notes that sounded delicious. The movement between solo and choral sections in the Vespers was accomplished so well. The choir delivered the fugal music of the Laudate Pueri with admirable punch and precision and the Magnificat where soloists and choir with trumpet and timpani added to the orchestral writing concluded the Vespers triumphantly.

Eilidh McEwan also had an important role to sing in the Requiem but in this work the three other soloists were given more exposure. Bass Stefan Berkieta sang firmly and provided richness to the vocal quartets and tenor Thomas Kinch sang with real zest and a sense of commitment that brought his solos vibrantly alive. Mezzo Phillipa Thomas brought a warm depth of tone to her solos.

Drew Tulloch’s fine organ playing came through especially in the sections of the Offertorium and I have already mentioned the sizzling string playing in the Dies Irae. The orchestra brought so many different shades of colour throughout the work and so indeed did the choir as Peter Parfitt led them through so many mood changes making use of varied dynamics and attack from the gentle opening of the Hostias for instance to its rousing Quam olim Abrahae. 

As the comment in the programme referring to the Benedictus stated, this is truly lovely music and indeed Sunday’s performance emphasised that brilliantly. 

Who cares who really wrote the Requiem? All that matters is that this was a truly first-rate performance of one of the finest musical creations ever imagined.         

contributed by Alan Cooper