Bach Choir returns to homeland in visual and aural feast

Bach: Jesu meine Freude, BWV 227; Orchestral Suite no.3, in D, BWV 1068; Magnificat in D, BWV 243

Bach Choir, Janey MacKenzie, Lisette Wesseling (sopranos), Andrea Cochrane (contralto), John Beaglehole (tenor), David Morriss (bass), Chiesa Ensemble, Douglas Mews (organ, continuo), conducted by Stephen Rowley

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday 5 December 2010, 3pm

A programme made up of three well-loved pieces by J.S. Bach was bound to please any lover of baroque music.

Jesu, meine Freude is unusually long, complex and varied for a motet. It is full of the most delicious settings of words, including extracts from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The word-painting is just superb.

This performance did its beauties justice. After perusing the beautifully produced printed programme and looking in wonder at Stephen Rowley’s colourful garb (perhaps appropriate for Christmas) against the sombre black of the choir, one was hit with the splendid initial impact of the music.

Full-toned, meaningful singing and a fine accompaniment on chamber organ from Douglas Mews and a mainly trouble-free performance full of sensitivity and dynamic contrasts made for a most enjoyable and satisfying experience. The women particularly were splendid, with the men not far behind, though the intonation and entries were suspect at times. This choir suffers from the usual shortage of tenors; those they have at times, unfortunately, endeavoured to make up the shortfall with stridency of tone. Probably a somewhat smaller choir is better for this music.

Nevertheless it was a commendable performance; some dropping in pitch towards the end may have been due to tiredness, since this music is very demanding, with its varied moods an settings. Overall, it was a vibrant, joyful and inspiring performance of some of Bach’s most exquisite music.

The Suite was directed by Douglas Mews from the harpsichord, and featured an orchestra of approximately 21 players. I say approximately, because there were three trumpeters, but only one was identified in the printed programme. I suspect another was Danny Kirgan; the third may have been Tom Moyer.

The extended opening Ouverture was robust and quick; it was followed by the sublime Air for strings only, commonly known as ‘Air on the G string’. The brass returned for the dance movements. With much difficult music to play they were not always spot on, but in the main excellent.

Woodwind featured with delightfully floating phrases, and helped to make the whole amply rewarding.

This was not an original instrument orchestra, but one drawn mainly from the ranks of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. To be baroque in style required a greater lightness, and notes to be a little more separated, at least in this acoustic. Yet it was a joyful and enjoyable rendering of a work we hear too seldom. It was inspired to give the singers a rest with music such as this.

The Magnificat in D was an appropriate seasonal choice. As the programme note stated, in many ways this work anticipates the choruses of the Mass in B minor. The use of orchestra, organ, five soloists and chorus makes it of a similar large scale in terms of performers, if not of length and scope. There are no recitatives, allowing the Biblical words flow without interruption.

The words of the Magnificat, from St Lukes’ Gospel chapter one, are split into nine movements, alternating arias and choruses. The opening chorus ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ is brilliant, firstly from orchestra and then from chorus. It is a splendid declamation, sung here with a good, strong sound. Lisette Wesserling sang the first aria ‘Et exsultavit’ without much expression, and a rather hard, piercing quality in the acoustics of this building. However, her vibrato-less tone would be regarded as suitable for sacred music of this period.

A second soprano aria immediately follows: ‘Quia respexit’, which was sung in excellent style by Janey MacKenzie, with feeling and expression. A lovely oboe featured in the orchestral accompaniment.

A hearty chorus is the fourth movement, ‘Omnes generationes’. The fast tempo and florid writing were managed very well. The bass aria ‘Quia fecit’ was accompanied by continuo only, giving a most attractive effect. Morriss’s tone rich and mellow, but his intonation a little suspect at the opening. This was the only contribution Bach allowed the bass,, but it was a fine one.

Next, the duet for alto and tenor with muted strings ‘Et misericordia’ is full of meditative phrases for both soloists. In this case, the tenor was a little too loud for the alto. A tenor voice will almost always stand out, so there was a need for John Beaglehole to modify his tone in order to blend and match his companion.

The chorus ‘Fecit potentiam’ is quite demanding with its florid writing contrasted with chordal statements. This performance was glorious.

John Beaglehole gave a very hearty rendition of ‘Deposuit potentes’, suitable to the subject of the putting down of the mighty from their seats, with a magnificent orchestral accompaniment.

The ninth movement was ‘Esurientes implevit’, and aria for alto. Its accompaniment was a magical flute duet; while Andrea Cochrane made a lovely job of this, her tone was a little light for the modern flutes. It would have been perfectly satisfactory with the wooden flutes of Bach’s time.

A beautiful, floating trio followed, for the three female voices: ‘Suscepit Israel’. To my mind this is the most beautiful part of the whole work, and the soloists’ treatment of it left little to be desired.

The final ‘Gloria’ began somewhat too legato, and was not as successful as the other choruses, but the orchestra was splendid, ending off in a triumphant manner a most worthwhile concert.

The Bach Choir’s performance was of much better quality than it was the last time I heard them. The church was nearly full, and the audience gave the choir, orchestra and soloists a very warm reception.

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