Bach Choir performs excellently in varied programme

Victoria: Motet: ‘O quam gloriosum’; ‘Missa O quam gloriosum’
Britten: Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Victoria

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor
Bach: Chorales BWV 669, 670, 671; Chorale Preludes on the chorales: BWV 672, 673 and 674
Bach: Prelude and Fugue no.9 in E, BWV 854, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Bach: ‘Ruht Wohl’ from St John Passion

Bach Choir, conducted by Peter de Blois with Douglas Mews (organ), Maaike Christie-Beekman (soprano), Katherine Hodge (contralto), Thomas Atkins (tenor, Simon Christie (bass)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 7 August 2011, 2.30pm

This was a concert that deserved to be better attended; an interesting and diverse, yet linked, programme was well thought-out and well performed. The music by Victoria music was sung unaccompanied; the Bach accompanied, and the Vaughan Williams had an ad lib organ accompaniment, contributing additonal variety.

It was a surprise to find young tenor Thomas Atkins singing solo, in the middle of a brilliant season of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the University Memorial Theatre, in which he has a leading role.

I was pleased at last to see printed in a New Zealand concert programme the paragraph from the printed programmes for concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the piece about uncovered coughs giving the same decibel reading as a note played mezzo-forte on a horn, and the disarming suggestion “A handkerchief placed over the mouth when coughing assists in obtaining a pianissimo”. Certainly, I heard but little coughing at this concert.

The Victoria motet was sung with a good robust sound, but it was marred, as were other items (e.g. the Sanctus of both the Victoria and the Vaughan Williams masses), by a slightly dubious first chord, pitch and attack-wise.

The Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Victoria was to have been played on the main organ in the gallery of the church, but unfortunately that organ was found to be ciphering badly (that is, notes sounding by themselves, unbidden – usually pedal notes), and so the chamber organ had to be used. Perhaps the main organ was anticipating the damp weather which arrived dramatically half-way through the concert, flinging a side door open to enable us to hear and see the hail falling.

It was quite perplexing to decide where the home key for Britten’s organ piece was – there was dissonance aplenty, and ambiguous chord progressions, especially in the fugue. Douglas Mews appeared to be in a little difficulty at the beginning of the work, probably because of the small instrument he had to play on (which Peter de Blois unkindly referred to as ‘the sewing machine’).

The character of the mass by Victoria balanced ‘great simplicity with… controlled passion’, as the programme note had it. The choir produced beautifully blended sound, excellent matching Latin pronunciation, and good dynamic variation in unison. There were some rough sounds from the men at times early on, but this did not persist. A jubilant Benedictus showed that the choir could produce plenty of volume, while the Agnus Dei featured exquisite sustained tone, and in the final sentence, lovely soft singing. This movement was the best of the Mass, with singing of fine clarity, quality, and complete accuracy.

The style of the period of the composition was conveyed well; the counterpoint was clear and the tone was sustained well through the long vocal lines.

Vaughan Williams’s Mass was very animated, the Gloria being especially lively. Both Simon Christie and Thomas Atkins sang very well in their solos and ensembles, with admirable tone and clear enunciation. The women did not measure up quite as well, but were certainly much more than adequate. Katherine Hodge’s voice did not carry as well as the others; holding her head up more and out of her music would assist with projection. Peter de Blois himself sang the solo plainsong introits in both the Victoria and the Vaughan Williams masses where they were required; this was fine from where I sat, but I do wonder if it carried to the people sitting at the back of the church.

Douglas Mews’s tasteful and effective accompaniments added to the effect of the Vaughan Williams work, which was set for double choir. It is a thoroughly pleasing work, simpler in style and shorter in length than many masses written for choirs to sing outside of a church setting, though its relatively short duration suits it for liturgical performance also.

The first Osanna, following the Sanctus, was spoilt by some very strange tone at times; it did not appear to emanate from one voice part only. Again, it was the Agnus Dei setting that was perhaps the most effective. It is very dramatic for both soloists and choir.

The second half of the concert consisted of chorales by J.S. Bach, and his associated chorale preludes for organ. The reproduction of the title page of the published Clavier Übung and the portrait of Bach embellished a well-designed printed programme.

The first chorale was followed by the relevant chorale prelude: ‘Kyrie Gott Vater in Ewigkeit’. It was for manuals only, as were the two other chorale preludes. It was a relatively simple variation on the chorale melody. The second chorale and its prelude, ‘Christe, aller Welt Trost’, were more ornate, but also more meditative. The singing showed care over tempo, tone and dynamics, while the organ piece was also more intricate than its predecessor, with interesting harmonies.

Third were chorale and prelude ‘Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist’. The chorale was a more substantial and more robust work than were the previous two. German pronunciation was good, but not as clear as the Latin had been.

The organist had a yet more complex piece to play, with elaborate counterpoint and ornamentation. The chorale prelude was followed by Prelude and Fugue no.9 in E from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. We are more accustomed to hearing these pieces played on the piano or the harpsichord. Naturally, they are perfectly able to be played on the organ; perhaps the only reason we do not hear them more often from that instrument is because there is so much music to play that Bach wrote specifically for the organ. The warm flute sounds of the chamber organ and the clean and clear playing of both prelude and the faster fugue, with all entries of the fugue subject apparent, made this an enjoyable and satisfying performance.

The final item was the beautiful ‘Ruht wohl’ (Rest in peace) chorus that concludes Bach’s St John Passion. This chorus is a delight, but I though the performance a little disappointing; the choir sounded a trifle tired. The falling cadences of the music are more tricky to keep on pitch, and this did not always succeed, the intonation slipping a little. Nor was the choir quite as unified as it had been in the other works in the programme. Douglas Mews’s accompaniment was at his usual excellent standard.

All in all, this was an excellent concert. The attention to tone, pronunciation and detail were, on the whole, very good. This was the best singing I have heard from this choir for many years – which is not to say that recent concerts have not been good, but this one scooped them.

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