J S Bach: Cantata No 174 and excerpts from the Saint John Passion; Rossini: Stabat Mater
Soloists: Frances Moore, Rosel Labone, Edmund Hintz and Orene Tiai; orchestra conducted by Michael Vinten
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street
Saturday, 28 March 2009
The Festival Singers are a choir with a policy of ‘seeking work alongside the Christian church’, to quote their own words. Not all their programmes comprise religious or liturgical music, but this one did and it was a nice balance between the Catholic and the Protestant.
It was a major concert, employing a large pick-up orchestra (26 were listed), a good many players from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, all under the capable direction of Michael Vinten.
The concert opened with Cantata No 174, ‘Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte’, written in 1726 for the second day of Whitsun, the 6th of June; its Sinfonia is an expansion of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concert No 3, which is scored for three each of violins, violas an cellos (the programme note, translated from the German, comments on the string scoring for the cantata, as if not aware that it is the same as for the concerto); here woodwinds and brass were added and they produced a grand sound with lively tempi, except for a good many signs of under-rehearsal.
The first aria is for alto in which Rosel Labone did not quite match in volume the orchestra and the nice pair of oboes. After a short recitative for tenor, Edmund Hintz, bass Orene Tiai, his voice attractive and gaining polish, sang ‘Greifet zu’, a more elaborate aria, that he managed very well. But here, the chorus sounded rather top-heavy, lacking weight in the men’s voices.
Frances Moore followed with the aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls…’ from Part I of the St John Passion, her voice characterful and projecting well. The aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ was sung by Hintz, whose somewhat neutral-sounding tenor voice was probably better adapted to this than to the Vixen in which he sang on the previous night. Finally, the last, great chorus, ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiliger Gebeine’, offered a moving finish to the Bach section.
As the choir set out in the Stabat Mater with fine confidence, it struck me that they were much more at home with the Catholic liturgy, particularly as presented by the epicurean Rossini, than with the Lutheran Bach. Here, the orchestra sounded well rehearsed and disciplined: the choir well balanced, the ensemble deliberately paced, portentous, with strong timpani, and there was a fine operatic quality, emphatically so with the famous tenor aria from Hintz, ‘Cuius animam’, where the orchestra actually sounded splendid.
The soprano/alto duet that followed vindicated Rosel Labone’s vocal talent, as did her later Cavatina, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’. When it came to the bass part, Tiai’s lowest notes lost quality in his aria and again in the following recitative and chorus.
The quartet, ‘Sancta mater’ proved a startling virtuoso piece, agile rhythms, almost a Rossini patter ensemble in which the words struggled to match the pace of the music.
The final chorus, featuring a very decent fugue and fine bassoon obbligato, maintained the level of energy, ensemble and balanced choral sound that had driven it throughout.