Aberdeen Bach Choir at St Machar’s Cathedral June 12 2011

Press & Journal Review by Roddy Phillips

Despite its name the Aberdeen Bach Choir has over the years performed varied and innovative programmes of music from most genres. Last night at St Machar’s Cathedral the Choir championed the choral music of composers that are rarely heard in the North East, perhaps even in Scotland.

For some reason choral music by British composers like Elgar, Stanford and Britten tends to be sidelined in favour of the German greats, which is a pity because our own composers continue to respond to the strong choral tradition, James Macmillan being a perfect example.

Perhaps last night’s well balanced programme had something to do with the Choir’s recently appointed new Musical Director Peter Parfitt. He has an impressive CV that includes 8 years as a Lay Clerk in the Choir of Winchester Cathedral.

Parfitt has brought a new and exciting dynamism to the 80 strong Choir that was very much in evidence last night in the more dramatic works by Elgar and Ireland. Sopranos and altos were on top form and I doubt if the male voice sections have sounded better.

The brilliant young organist from St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh Duncan Ferguson also brought a vibrant new life to the St Machar’s organ in a programme that was both dramatic and thought provoking.

This fresh hand at the helm is obviously heralding a new style of programming for the Choir. In December their concert of Christmas music will include readings of poems by Thomas Hardy and John Betjeman.


Published in The Press and Journal on Monday 13 June 2011
and reproduced by kind permission of Roddy Phillips


Aberdeen Bach Choir: From Elgar to Britten - the British Revival

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 12 June 2011

“A mighty shout went up and a sound like a trumpet” – no, not Joshua at the Battle of Jericho, this was the arresting opening of Elgar’s motet, Give unto the Lord, sung with amazing vim and vigour by Aberdeen Bach Choir conducted by Peter Parfitt framed by the brazen majesty of the organ of St. Machar’s Cathedral played by Duncan Ferguson, Organist and Master of the Music at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. This was the heroic start of a concert of choral and organ music carefully selected from among the finest pieces by nine composers representing the great flowering of British music from the late nineteenth to just after the middle of the twentieth century, the latest piece being Paean by Kenneth Leighton first performed in 1967.
The choir were at their most robust and joyful throughout Elgar’s psalm setting, not that they missed out on the more delicate passages of music, but every section of the choir came in strongly and confidently with Elgar’s wonderfully expansive melodic entries and Duncan Ferguson did not have to hold back on the organ accompaniment to let the choir come through.

Much of the music in the programme however was for unaccompanied choir in what was therefore a very testing performance for the singers. The other accompanied pieces were John Ireland’s Greater Love and Like as the Hart by Herbert Howells. Ireland’s piece balanced melody with richly expressive harmonies and with fine soprano and baritone solos sung by Angela Slater and Robert Wilson. These voices drawn from the choir had just the right flavour in a piece that would fit very well into the English Cathedral tradition of Evensong which has its own very special ambience, something that was captured nicely in this performance.

Like as the Hart by Howells, though more wistful and pensive, was one of the highlights of the performance. Beautifully and sensitively sung, its lovely melodies seemed to rise up weightlessly from the choir.
Several of the pieces used antiphonal effects, the most spectacular of these being Stanford’s The Bluebird in which a group of sopranos sang from the gallery at the back of the Cathedral. The result was a wonderfully ethereal performance that brought Mary Coleridge’s word painting and Stanford’s music vividly to life.
Also by Stanford, the three Motets, Justorum animae, Coelos ascendit Hodie and Beati quorum via were sung with careful attention to vocal colour especially the joyful central piece which used the antiphonal effects of double choir which came across with admirable clarity.

The less well known composers, Charles Wood and William Harris, were represented by Hail Gladenning Light and Faire is the Heaven both of which proved well worth hearing but the other highlights of the choir’s performance came with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei from the Mass in g minor by Vaughan Williams and Britten’s celebrated Hymn to St Cecilia.

There was lovely transparent singing from the female voices in the Sanctus and the four soloists Angela Slater, Flora Bramwell, Richard Coleman and Robert Wilson alternating with nicely balanced singing from the full choir brought gently blended tonal colour to the composer’s particularly attractive settings of the Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

The Hymn to St Cecilia with its special refrain also featured solos from several members of the choir though led strongly by Angela Slater once again. The first two verses were well carried by the choir both in liveliness of rhythm and clarity of diction but I did feel that right at the end, the singers were beginning to tire and the ending lacked focus.

Duncan Ferguson’s organ playing added fire and colour to the accompanied pieces and it was a special treat to have him play two solo organ pieces that fitted perfectly into this special programme. Master Tallis’s Testament by Herbert Howells wove together the spirit of early music with the harmonic language of Howells’s own imagination in the later variations, a blending that worked spectacularly well and also well into the spectacular range was Ferguson’s searingly exciting performance of Kenneth Leighton’s Paean.

As a final word on this concert I must mention Peter Parfitt’s fabulous programme notes once again. They made perfect sense of the choice of music and for the “Family Tree” alone, showing the pupil – teacher connections between the various composers, this beautifully designed programme will be going straight into my bookcase for future reference!   

Review contributed by Alan Cooper