Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter Walls, with The Chiesa Ensemble, Douglas Mews (organ) and vocal soloists
Vivaldi’s Gloria, RV 589
Johann Christoph Bach: Fürchte dich nicht.
Johann Ludwig Bach: Das ist meine Freude.
J.S. Bach’s Kyrie-Gloria Mass in B minor of 1733
St. Andrew’s on The Terrace
Sunday, 13 May 2017, 3.30pm
Great praise is due to Peter Walls for the success of this concert; previous conductor Peter de Blois had departed overseas leaving rather short notice for the preparation of the music. Without this explanation, the audience would hardly be aware that ample time was not available for rehearsal, such was the high standard of most of the music presented. One item originally scheduled, by J. Christian Bach, was dropped. This was no bad thing; the concert was of a more than adequate length with the remaining items. The church was almost full.
It was good to see (for the first time in New Zealand, in my experience) reproduced in the printed programme, words from the programmes at the Royal Festival Hall in London, regarding the decibels produce by an uncovered cough. Indeed, I noticed no coughs during this concert. Notes in the programme were informative, and the words were printed, along with English translations.
First up was Vivaldi’s well-known Gloria, RV 589. This was taken at a slick pace, but The Chiesa Ensemble, notably the trumpets, were up to it. The attack from the choir was excellent, as were the gradations of dynamics. The choir threw themselves into this lively work with vigour, and communication was good, with most singers watching the conductor well.
There were some rough sounds from basses, but generally, balance and blend were admirable. The quieter second sentence ‘Et in terra pax’ was a beautifully calm contrast to the lively opening ‘Gloria’. The women soloists (Nicola Holt, soprano, and Megan Hurnard, mezzo-soprano) were animated and well-matched in their ‘Laudamus’ duet. The soprano solo ‘Domine Deus’ was delightful, not least for the wonderful oboe solo. The staccato bassoons below the vocal part added clearly articulated character.
The instrumental ensemble, of 22 players, was made up to a large extent of professional musicians from both Wellington-domiciled orchestras, and along with Douglas Mews on the baroque organ, contributed very largely to the success of the performances. As did the acoustic of St. Andrew’s Church, aiding the choir in achieving a big sound when required.
The bouncy and jubilant ‘Domine Fili’ chorus was for the most part carefully articulated as well as being lively. The contralto solo (sung here by mezzo-soprano) opened with a sombre cello solo, accompanied by the organ’s flutes. Megan Hurnard’s voice was beautifully produced, and her tone appropriate to the sense of ‘Misere nobis’. The choir’s uniform pronunciation of the words was an exemplary feature of their interjections.
It was strange not to find the soloists’ names listed in the programme, but there were biographies at the back.
The final sections of the piece where sung and played with verve – though a little strain showed in the tenor parts. Again here, the trumpets excelled.
A complete contrast followed, with an unaccompanied motet by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703): Fürchte dich nicht. It began rather hesitantly but warmed up, and ended well; not an easy piece.
Then it was the turn of Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731); the motet Das ist meine Freude. I have heard this fine choral work for double chorus sung by the New Zealand Youth Choir. It was sung with vigour, but some of the many runs were not executed convincingly. However, the German words were well enunciated.
Following the interval, we heard J.S. Bach’s Missa from 1733, better known as the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ from his Mass in B minor, where they were reused. The opening ‘Kyrie’ had the choir faltering a little. The Chiesa Ensemble again were in superb form, led by Rebecca Struthers.
For the choir’s part, it cannot be said that intonation never wavered, but by and large they did splendidly, and communicated the majesty and drama of this great work. The duet ‘Christe eleison’ by the two women soloists was sung with absolute unity and concord, strings and organ accompanying.
The second ‘Kyrie’ began, and continued, confidently. The complex fugal setting of ‘Et in terra pax’ likewise was accurate, the choir displaying pleasing tone and attention to dynamics. Here, the brass were in their element, well supported by the other players. The highly decorated ‘Laudamus te’ was handled with aplomb by Megan Hurnard. ‘Gratias’ from the choir was very fine. The timpanist was able to let fly. ‘Domine Deus’ with the tenor soloist, Ken Trass followed. He was not as strong as the soprano with whom he shared the duet, but nevertheless, his singing was accurate and he made a pleasing sound. A lovely flute obbligato embellished the singing.
It was good to have no break between the sections; it made sense to carry straight on, and this heightened the contrasts in tempi, orchestration and dynamics. After singing ‘Qui tollis’ the choir at last got to sit down for the first time since the interval, during the delicious contralto solo ‘Qui sedes’, accompanied by gorgeous oboe, and the following bass aria (David Morriss): ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, accompanied by a magnificent solo horn. The bass voice did not come through the orchestral texture as well as the other soloists did, though there were fine notes and passages. The intricacies of the horn part did not have difficulty in communicating.
The final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ was magnificent.
It seemed odd to me that the male soloists wore open-necked shirts, when the men of the choir wore bow-ties. Women soloists take care with their dress, which could not in any way be called informal. True, the orchestra men had open-necked shirts also, but these being black were not so obvious. The previous evening I attended Orchestra Wellington’s fine concert. They dress in much less formal fashion than does the NZSO, but nevertheless, the men all wore ties. I believe it is a matter of respect to the music as well as to the audience.
Once again, St. Andrew’s proved itself an ideal venue for this type of concert. And once again Bach proved to be the superbly inventive composer of choral music. No-one in the audience could be anything but satisfied with what they heard. Much credit must go to Peter Walls for his direction of his forces in this dynamic and musically alive concert, that was nevertheless taxing for the choir. Bravo, all!