Aberdeen Bach Choir 3 December 2022
A Christmas Scene
For their first individual concert in nearly three years, Aberdeen Bach Choir drew a house full audience to St Machar's Cathedral on Saturday evening. After the barren years of Covid and with a new conductor on the podium, people must surely have been excited to get back to a live performance by one of Aberdeen's most popular and long established musical organisations: The Bach Choir. The programme, entitled A Christmas Scene must also have been a special enticement at this time of year. It is the first time I can remember the Bach Choir offering a Christmas concert. However on Saturday, we were to hear, dare I say, a much more elite selection of Christmas music. Apart from the first piece which was by the American composer Eric Whitacre, born in Reno, Nevada, all the other pieces were by British composers, mostly from the twentieth century to the present day. The Bach Choir's newest conductor Dr Paul Tierney is himself a renowned singer. He has a PhD in composition and was the founding director of the University of Aberdeen New Music Group. With such a background, we were certain to hear a brilliantly well chosen and out of the ordinary programme of seasonal music including three of the finest British Christmas choral works. These were by Britten, Finzi and Vaughan Williams.
Back to the beginning though. The first music I ever heard by Eric Whitacre was for brass band. Since then I have heard many of his choral works which I would call part of the new tonality school along with composers like Morten Lauridsen and Paul Mealor. However The Chelsea Carol was very different. In it, he managed to marry together the feeling of plainsong, his own, I think, with quite daring harmonic language. This section was to end with music by Peter Warlock who also brought together modernity with the past, though in a very different way. The organ played by David Gerrard held one note while the female voices sang the plainsong-like melody. Expansions for full choir in a variety of dynamics were beautifully well handled.
This was not easy music and nor was Britten's A Ceremony of Carols which followed. The harp, providing the instrumental background in this work was played with wonderfully expressive and finely contrasting dynamics by Sharron Griffiths. The female voices opened with remarkable freshness and clarity. The full choir followed with joyous vigour. Soprano soloist Eve Begg sang That Yonge Child with admirable gentleness and purity. Later on she was joined by a second soprano Molly Brown in a beautifully well-balanced duo. The sheer variety of choral blends depicted so many different aspects of the Christmas story and the Bach choir, especially the women and the harpist took us to the very heart of Britten's music.
John Tavener's God Is With Us was amazing. Ross Cumming singing from the pulpit sang the words possibly more familiar to us from the Christmas section of Handel's Messiah. He was awesomely strong and clear. Tavener's personal harmonies were beautifully well delivered by the choir. The organ did not come in till near the end, but when it did, wow! - David Gerrard's chords were explosive. I was surprised that there was no applause at the end of this piece. I was going to applaud, but since this piece was new to me, I thought perhaps the audience knew something that I didn't, so I kept quiet. Can I applaud now then, because I thought this was a fantastic piece, splendidly well performed. Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down was more familiar, soft and serene as the programme note promised and with attractive melodic and harmonic content.
Following the interval, James MacMillan's Chosen began with a long held organ note and a folk-like melody often in unison before the organ and choir opened up in powerful dramatic mood. I was reminded structurally of the opening piece by Whitacre. MacMillan takes his devotional music very seriously. He thinks deeply about his texts and in this piece he took us by the hand gently at first then dramatically and forcefully leading us to his conclusion. Bob Chilcott's The Shepherd's Carol opened the door towards the two great works that were to follow. His music was colourful and atmospheric. As it progressed, the singing got richer and richer before coming to a more peaceful ending. Paul Tierney's control over the choir in this piece was so satisfying.
It was Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax that I felt was the most moving piece of the evening. It opened with David Gerrard giving us an extensive organ interlude. Somehow, near the conclusion of the interlude, I felt the organ was singing out the word Alleluia several times. That same sound came back at the end of the piece. Ross Cumming took us with him on a walk under the stars as he pondered on the Christmas story and thought back to the very first Christmas with the shepherds, the stable and the manger. Suddenly there was the angel, Eve Begg singing in a pure ethereal fashion, telling us to be not afraid. Her singing was perfectly well balanced with the organ. The choir rejoiced mightily before Ross Cumming took us back to the present and the organist warmed our hearts with his playing.
Ross Cumming was very much to the fore with his performance in the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams. The opening explains the full impact of the Christmas Story before well known carols collected by the composer give us comfort and joy and tell us that On Christmas Night all Christians Sing. Ross really got us going with the genuine power and positivity of his performance in this popular piece before Vaughan Williams and the Bach Choir concluded by wishing us all a Happy New Year. An ebullient conclusion to a sensational concert that both educated and entertained us brilliantly.