Many Magnificats in interesting Bach Choir concert

“Songs of Mary”

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Magnificats by Tavener, Stanford, Andrew Carter, Herbert Howells and CPE Bach; Totus Tuus by Górecki

Stephen Rowley, (conductor), Lisette Wesseling (soprano), Megan Hurnard (contralto), John Beaglehole (tenor), David Morriss (bass), Douglas Mews (organ)

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 11 August 2013, 3pm

Another interesting and imaginatively programmed concert by the Bach Choir was presented to a well-filled (but not full) St. Peter’s Church.  The first half comprised pieces composed by mainly British composers of the twentieth century (aside from the late nineteenth-century Stanford piece), while the second commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

John Tavener’s Magnificat Collegium Regale featured chromatic writing progressing in semitones, giving a mysterious, other-worldly feeling to the music.  The programme note described it as having “a melody with a drone in the Greek style.”  The verses of the canticle were interspersed with a statement in honour of Mary.  Much of the tessitura was very high, especially in this reiterated statement.  Some strain was evident, especially in the soprano section of the choir.  While varied dynamics were employed, greater variety of expression from ways of phrasing and delivering and emphasising the words would have added interest.

This was a difficult work, sung in English.  The choir did not entirely rise to these difficulties, and certainly not above them.

Górecki’s piece was unaccompanied, as was the Tavener, but this time the language was Latin.  A slow, extremely effective work, Totus Tuus utilises most affecting harmony.  It is not easy to sing, as I know
from experience.  The high tessitura in all parts, and much repetition of the high passages can be quite an effort.  The measured, sustained nature of the chords make it difficult to retain correct intonation. Here, the voices blended very well, the tone was lovely, and though occasionally everyone was not together, there was good attention to detail.  The pianissimo passages were beautiful.

Also in Latin and unaccompanied was Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat.  It was a difficult work for double choir, and given the paucity of tenors in particular for this concert, the pressure showed. Here and there, mainly on top notes, intonation was suspect.  The main problem was that the work did not hang together well; it was probably a little too difficult for the choir.  Blend was not consistently good, with one or
two voices, particularly in the sopranos, too prominent.  Dynamics served the text well, and though this was not on the whole great performance, it had good moments.

Mary’s Magnificat by contemporary British composer Andrew Carter was completely different. Accompanied by organ, this Magnificat is in the nature of a Christmas carol.  An attractive setting, it featured clear solo singing from a soprano in the choir.  It was delicious music, evoking both a pastoral setting and a lullaby, and received a fine performance.

The high point of the first half for me, both in the calibre of the music and its performance was the Herbert Howells work.  It was a highly accomplished setting for choir and organ.  The contrast between soft and loud sections was most effective.  One could, in the mind’s eye (and ear) hear and see a skilled Anglican choir performing this lovely Magnificat.  It had the best word-setting so far, and the use of the organ, thrillingly played by Douglas Mews (also helping pitch-wise) added immeasurably to the beauty and grandeur of the work, especially in the Gloria.

After the interval, CPE Bach astonished us with a brilliant organ introduction.  The choir’s opening was slightly flat, but there was plenty of attack and spirit; a truly joyful hymn of praise.  The soprano solo was stylish, accurate and clear from Lisette Wesserling, who has a fine technique, although sometimes the singing was a little shrill for a church of this comparatively modest length.

The tenor solo followed.  ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ was difficult, but sung in a very accomplished fashion, with good word-painting and very clear words.  Tricky runs were managed successfully.

The chorus ‘Et misericordia eius’ was notable for excellent phrasing.  As the programme note stated, the writing was indeed in both the baroque style of Bach’s illustrious father, and ‘points forward to the Classical style’.  The higher tessitura was rather taxing in this chorus.

‘Fecit potentiam’ was the bass aria, and David Morriss gave a fine account.  Its jolly dotted rhythm was sung with strength, suiting the music to the words.  Douglas Mews’s organ part was delightful,  as was Morriss’s enunciation of the words – a thoroughly accomplished performance.

The following alto and tenor duet began with a high entry for the tenor; John Bealglehole was spot on.  Megan Hurnard sounded quite gorgeous, with variety and richness of tone, great control and evincing excellent blend with the tenor.  Again, the composer’s word-painting was highly skilled, but subtle, and intensely musical.  This was an extended duet, skilfully and appealingly brought off.

The alto solo, ‘Suscepit Israel’, received a fine involving and committed performance of quite a complicated aria.  The singer’s evenness of tone throughout her range and her excellent voice production blended well with the calm, lilting organ part.

The final Gloria for chorus was introduced by a scintillating passage that continued to be the backbone of this cheerful litany of praise.  The ‘Amen’ was very florid and complex, but was performed with panache; obviously it was thoroughly rehearsed.  The polyphony was clearly and accurately rendered.

A lot of hard work has gone into producing a concert of varied interest, and on the whole, good quality.  It gave the audience an admirable opportunity to hear Bach’s excellent writing for voices.  The choir stood throughout; perhaps this accounted for their sounding  a little tired at times, towards the end.

There was an excellent printed programme (owing a good deal to the Internet).  It included the Royal Festival Hall (London) statement about the decibels produced by an uncovered cough, and concluded “Please be considerate to others in the audience”.  Bravo!  While it did not eliminate the phenomenon totally, it may well have reduced its frequency of occurrence. A little heating in the venue would have enhanced the pleasure.

A disappointment was that when conductor and a choir member spoke to the audience, their voices were not loud enough for the back rows in the church to hear.




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