J.S. Bach Mass in B minor

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 4 December 2016

Aberdeen Bach Choir chose a particularly apposite work to celebrate their sixtieth anniversary. It had to be a work by J. S. Bach of course - and one of his most magnificent at that. As ever, Peter Parfitt had provided a programme note that covered every aspect of the history and creation of the Mass. It was interesting to learn how long it had taken for Bach to complete the work and to discover where all its different sections had come from. The historical details might lead one to think that the work could not really hold together as a unified whole. That might have been partly true in Bach’s time but on hearing Sunday’s performance what came across was simply the amazing variety of shaping and musical textures that fitted the various sections of the Mass so perfectly. The different moods and emotions stirred by the contrasting musical settings of the texts came through in what I thought was one of the most exciting performances by the Bach Choir. The huge vocal forces produced a surging ocean of choral sound supported by Aberdeen Sinfonietta led by Bryan Dargie playing at their best. The organ played with sensitivity by Drew Tulloch provided just enough support for the choir or enrichment for the orchestra while the harpsichord played by David Gerrard was sometimes in the foreground but otherwise gave just enough of its sound to tickle the ears most delightfully.

The choir itself sounded as good as I have ever heard it. The very opening of the work was certainly a magnificent call to attention followed by the orchestra delivering a lengthy out flowing of Bach’s finest contrapuntal writing. In the Kyrie eleison and on many other occasions in the work the tenors were magnificent, coming in perfectly on cue and holding their part firmly. The sopranos often in two sections soared smoothly at the top of the choral blend. The basses came in firmly on the repeat of the Kyrie and the altos added a smooth warm quality to the choral blend.

Peter Parfitt in his programme note mentioned the scale, density and complexity of the work and these words sum up perfectly the impact of the choral singing in Sunday’s performance. You only had to hear the complex richness of the singing in the Gloria supported by trumpets and timpani to understand what Peter Parfitt meant. Those trumpets played an important role throughout the work.

There were contrasting sections where the choir captured a darker and more restrained mood, in the Et incarnatus est – almost mysterious, or the Crucifixus, strangely dark and oppressive followed by an explosion of sound in Et resurrexit where the basses gave lightness and buoyancy to the choral blend.

As well as the magnificent choral singing, we were treated to splendid performances by the four solo singers. The employment of a counter tenor in place of a mezzo soprano worked well. Nicholas Spanos sang with unwavering clarity right across the range. His duets with soprano Elinor Rolfe Johnson allowed the two vocal parts to come through with unequalled clarity. Spanos, on his own in the Agnus Dei was glorious. 

Many of the vocal solos were supported by delicious instrumental accompaniments. Elinor Rolfe Johnson was supported by leader Bryan Dargie in the Laudamus Te, both performers capturing the ornamental qualities of the music. In the Domine Deus her soprano duet with tenor Nicholas Mulroy was embellished by Margaret Preston’s lovely clean flute playing. Bass, or should I really call him a baritone, Samuel Evans was supported by the double reed players, Geoffrey Bridge, and Fiona Gordon on the oboe family and Lesley Wilson and Kate Friday on bassoons. Earlier the bassoons were teamed with Robert Martin on a high pitched horn solo also supporting Evans for the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. These were just a few of the glorious moments in Sunday’s performance in which Nicholas Spanos singing of the Agnus Dei was supported by a slow swinging pendulum of orchestral sound including harpsichordist David Gerrard using a muted lute stop before the choir was joined by all four soloists in Dona nobis pacem – a rousing conclusion to one of the best performances ever from the Bach Choir.


contributed by Alan Cooper