The Bach Choir conducted by Stephen Rowley with soloists Rebekah Giesbere, Ruth Armishaw, Hannah Catrin Jones, John Beaglehole and Rory Sweeney
Janet Gibbs – organ
Beatus Vir, RV 597 (Vivaldi)
Trumpet Concerto in E flat (Neruda) with Mark Carter – trumpet
Dixit Dominus (Handel)
St Peter’s Church, Willis Street
Sunday 25 November, 4pm
The Bach Choir is one of Wellington’s more distinguished choirs, founded in 1968 by the late Anthony Jennings, a notable harpsichordist and one of New Zealand’s leaders in the revival of interest in the authentic performance of baroque and early music.
Though the choir’s fortunes have fluctuated over the years, it has experienced a steady improvement in performance standards and confidence under Stephen Rowley.
Vivaldi’s transition from a minor, one-piece composer (The Four Seasons) who was generally absent from the ranks of significant composers (look at any book of music history from before the second world war, even 1950), to a major eminence alongside Bach and Handel has been interesting. His surviving operas have been the most recent discoveries. It was probably Vivaldi’s melodic fecundity and resultant absence of the need to elaborate endlessly one or two hard-won tunes, that caused earlier generations to deprecate and dismiss him.
I had not heard this Beatus Vir before; the earlier of his two surviving settings. A famous Beatus Vir was one of the first pieces of early Baroque music I ever heard, in my teens – the setting by Monteverdi. And I seemed to hear echoes of it in Vivaldi’s version of a century later. Vivaldi sets the text (Psalm 111) taking care to reflect meanings, almost of every word, and the use of individual singers, soprano and alto (Rebekah Giesbers and Hannah Catrin Jones) at first and then tenor John Beaglehole, lent the rather severe imprecation of the Psalm brightness and delight.
One of the departures from the strict liturgical character is the repetition of the opening line, imposing a musical rather than an ecclesiastical character on the work, The polish of the orchestral accompaniment from the Chiesa Ensemble comprising NZSO players, lend the whole enterprise a professionalism which the choir readily took upon itself; oboes contributed elegantly in accompanying women’s solos and duets; and Janet Gibbs, largely unobtrusive, emerged occasionally as the principal accompaniment.
But the most striking feature of the performance was that sheer melodic ease that both choir and orchestra handled with such endless accomplishment.
A trumpet concerto completed the first half of the concert: a rarity by a Czech composer, Johann Baptist Neruda, born a generation after Vivaldi, Bach and Handel, proved rather more than a routine baroque concerto. The soloist, Mark Carter, made no concessions to baroque practice, playing a modern, valved instrument; though, probably in accord with the practice of the time, he also directed the orchestra, waving his trumpet about gracefully. Trumpet and orchestra bloomed in the fine acoustic of the church, allowing the easy legato of the Largo movement to expand, and taking the last movement, marked Vivace, at a pace that was rather slower than that. Though the first movement offered bravura opportunities, it was in the cadenza towards the end that Carter’s fluency finally showed itself. The endless emerging of music by forgotten composers and of lost works by better-known ones, serves to blur age-old judgements about the received masterpieces of the handful of ‘famous’ composers who have dominated music history for several centuries.
Confirmation that such things as masterpieces can still be acknowledged came with Handel’s Dixit Dominus, which occupied the second half. This remains undisputedly a prodigious creation by the 22-year-old composer from his Italian years. Written in Rome while the famous Papal ban on opera was in effect, all of Handel’s dramatic gifts are heard in the Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109); it is marked by one of the most dramatic openings, at least of the baroque period.
It was an arresting start signalling the great opera composer who was to emerge as soon as he reached a more congenial climate – Florence.
The three soloists who had shared the Vivaldi were now joined by soprano Ruth Armishaw and baritone Rory Sweeney, for a variety of episodes; alto Rebekah Giesbers enjoyed a striking episode with cello obbligato in the ‘Virgam virtutis’; the fast chorus ‘Tu es sacerdos’ went very well, though sopranos sounded a bit stretched as they negotiated the high passages; when all soloists sang together with chorus, as in (vi), ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’, the similarity of timbre between tenor and nominal bass, Rory Sweeney, somewhat reduced the variety that is a significant aspect of Handel’s composition; but this taxing episode for all soloists against throbbing bass strings they carried off splendidly.
‘Judicabit in nationibus’, in which Handel displays his fugal skills, was probably more tricky that it appeared; it’s little wonder, listening to this, particularly the exciting, staccato passage from ‘Conquassabit…’, that he had so quickly made a big impression in the Roman musical world. The two sopranos promptly changed the tone in ‘De torrente’ capturing beautifully the lamenting character of the verse. The soloists’ diction was generally excellent, while that of the choir was uniformly clear, even though they were probably tiring in the pulsating, motoric rhythm of the Gloria that becomes an extended fugue as it moves to its exultant conclusion.
Though both the works of the first half of the concert are very fine, and so well performed as to display their best qualities, this early Handel masterpiece was a splendid way to end the Bach Choir’s year.