Bach Choir offers rewarding looks into Purcell, Mozart and later English music

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Peter de Blois, with Douglas Mews – organ

Soloists: Sharon Yearsley, Maaike Christie-Beekman, James Young (replaced by the conductor), Simon Christie and Chris Buckland – soprano saxophone

Purcell: Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo, Mozart: Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339; James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass; Parry: Hear my words, ye people

Church of St Peter, Willis Street

Sunday 15 May, 3 pm

This concert had been scheduled for Saturday 16 April but, as explained by conductor Peter de Blois, there was an organ problem which required an organ transplant (probably a hoary one for organists).

De Blois also announced another change; the tenor was indisposed and so his place was taken by the conductor who happened, fortuitously, to be vocally equipped in a suitable way.

Purcell’s Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo
The earlier music came in the first half: two of Purcell’s last church compositions, written a year before his death in 1795, at the ripe Mozart and Bizet age of 35 or 36 (depending on what dates you observe for Purcell). The Te Deum Laudate and Jubilate Deo are often linked: Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate follow the same model.

The Te Deum was composed with orchestral accompaniment and, though I didn’t know that at the concert, I made unappreciative comments about the organ registrations in my notes; though I conceded that the contrast with the choral singing was ‘interesting’. Oh for accompaniment by brilliant trumpets and strings, something that one yearned for in the Mozart too!

Bass Simon Christie opened the singing strongly and confidently and mezzo (listed as ‘alto’) Maaike Christie-Beekman followed with rather impressive handling of the highly decorated melismatas from the verse ‘ The glorious company…’. Though the choir’s singing was generally well integrated and accurate, the entry of three soloists at ‘To thee all angels cry aloud’ introduced a rather more polished element; particular musical were the soprano-alto duet episodes, and the solo contributions from soprano Sharon Yearsley, and when De Blois’s tenor parts arrived they were perfectly comfortable.

One of the most affecting episodes was Christie-Beekman’s ‘Vouchsafe O Lord…’.

The Jubilate Deo is set to more lively music, with well-balanced choral singing; Douglas Mews’s organ playing was sympathetic. Again, Maaike Christie-Beekman’s voice proved splendidly appropriate to the music, tripping through the quick dotted rhythms, and again there was charming soprano-alto duetting. Another interesting duet was between the alto and bass where the bass had the melody much of the time, though pitched lower.

Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339
Mozart’s Solemn Vespers fulfilled my linguistic preference for Latin (Purcell’s setting was in English). It’s some time since I heard the entire work, his last for Salzburg Cathedral; though the ‘Laudate Dominum’ has the familiarity of a popular opera aria. The soloists are not such a constant presence as in the Purcell, so one paid greater attention to the chorus. After a moment of uncertainty early in the ‘Dixit Dominus’, the choir performed well, with plenty of energy with the momentum of the triple rhythm. It quickly served to remind me of the greatness of this music that seems somehow to be ranked below the Mass in C Minor or the Coronation Mass or of course the Requiem; with little justification.

The ‘Confitebor’ offered fine opportunities for the soloists, with short episodes for the two men which sounded very well. The four soloists in the ‘Beatus Vir’ enjoyed a striking moment, from ‘Gloria et divitiae..’ and again at ‘Jucundus homo’, singing through the verse one by one, sort of in canon. And the soprano here sounded especially practised and polished.

They did well in the fugal ‘Laudate Pueri’, with inflections that seemed to show meaning of the words. And the drop in dynamics as they entered the final verses, ‘Gloria patri et filio..’ found dramatic qualities in the language of the Psalm (113), which always raises Mozart’s liturgical music above the merely religious. The ‘Laudate Dominum’, of course, offered Yearsley an arresting solo opportunity; and it’s not without lovely choral episodes. Heard in the context of the six parts of the Vespers service, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ does not really stand out in isolation from the marvellous music in all parts of the work.

The last section, the ‘Magnificat’, ranks with other great settings of that text and the choir did it energetic justice, with a final gathering of splendid solo forces; and bold choral singing, though once again, high trumpets and pulsing strings were missed, in spite of Douglas Mews’s very creditable efforts on the organ.

James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass
It was a good idea to separate Parry from Mozart with a piece written in the 21st century. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, written in 2001 for a BBC documentary, employed an obbligato soprano saxophone, in the hands of Chris Buckland, and it’s actually scored for organ accompaniment. So the organ part, presumably with detailed registrations, was interesting in the fabric of the singing. Much of the organ part was comfortably low pitched, better integrated with the voices. As a quote from the review of a recording remarks, comparisons with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble are inevitable, though not invidious. Not all the Mass is used.

It’s melodic in an unapologetic way, the music is varied in articulation and dynamics, speed and rhythms, and the saxophone does unusual, somewhat spiritual things. It uttered a loud cry at ‘Domine fili unigenite’ and remained at hand through the start of the ‘Credo’, where the words were pronounced slowly and deliberately.

The choral parts are not too challenging, yet there were plenty of opportunities for dramatic outbursts: the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ provided an obvious occasion for a bit of ecstasy. The final Amen ended with voices and saxophone way up high. An attractive and successful piece.

Parry’s Verse Anthem
Returning to Parry, Hear my words, ye people was written in 1894 for a diocesan choral festival at Salisbury Cathedral, to be sung by combined parish church choirs, so it’s not too hard. But the parts for soprano bass, and the organ are more taxing. It might be for that reason that I had the feeling that the organ was not always on the same page (excuse the popular cliché) as the choir.

I also felt that this music, conceived for the huge space of an English cathedral, called for a generous acoustic that would wind the sounds around the side aisles and up into the vaulted ceiling before returning to human ears in the nave in careful confusion. Minor choral weaknesses could be disguised and the impact enhanced, to suggest more of a colourful and grand religious, even spiritual, ritual. All four soloists had happy moments in the limelight; the bass enjoyed quite a dramatic experience, though it went a bit low for his comfort at one point.

The main weakness for me was the descent in the last phase, to a very ordinary hymn, O praise ye the Lord, that sounds just like the thousand other hymns sung in Anglican and other protestant churches around the world.

Yet in many ways, this work represents much that was excellent in English 19th century music, and from the 21st century perspective, it can be judged more generously than ‘Parry and Stanford’ were by many critics and audiences of the mid 20th century. We are probably seeing a timely revision of these attitudes.

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