Masses in times of war celebrated by the Bach Choir under Ivan Patterson

Kodály: Missa Brevis
Haydn: Mass in D minor, H 22/11 (Missa in Angustiis or ‘Nelson’ Mass)

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Ivan Patterson, with Douglas Mews (organ), Rowena Simpson (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo), Jamie Young (tenor), Simon Christie (bass)

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 10 December 2017, 3 pm

With a great line-up of soloists and some marvellous music to sing, the stars were lined up well for the Bach Choir’s concert.  A sizeable audience was present to hear them.  The title for the concert derives from the fact that both masses were written under the stress of wartime conditions: Napoleonic Wars in Haydn’s case and the Russians beating back the Nazis in Budapest in 1943 in Kodály’s case.  The latter work had extra point by being performed within days of the composer’s birthday.

While the Haydn work was written to be performed with orchestra (here, organ substituted), the Kodály was scored for chorus and organ in its original version.  An impressive organ prelude to the work was almost impeccably played by Douglas Mews, and formed a fine introduction.  It was followed by a beautiful, almost ethereal ‘Kyrie’ movement. from the choir.

Jamie Young intoned the plainsong chant before the appropriate movements; before the ‘Gloria’ it immediately was striking and firm.  The choir followed, also strongly.  The soloists turn came in ‘Qui tollis’; it was notable for the solo singing of Maaike Christie-Beekman, who was strong and confident as usual, as well as producing a lovely tone.  Then Simon Christie sang, his sound firm and rich, followed by Jamie Young.  Finally the choir took over at ‘Tu solus sanctus’ and made a good ending to the movement.

Throughout, Kodály’s clear, uncompromising, different harmonies were apparent, but made some difficulties for the choir; intonation sagged in a few places, mainly in quiet passages.  Otherwise the singing was good, and clear.  Having sung this work, I know it is not easy.  Not only are some of the harmonies difficult, the bass notes required to be sung are sometimes very low.

The ‘Credo’ is sung by the choir, and the music differs for its three sections: God the Father and Creator; Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion; his Resurrection and Ascension.  The colours, tempi and moods of the music were expressed well by the choir, and words for the most part were clear.  The tone from the sopranos especially was splendid.

The ‘Sanctus’ opened with pianissimo from the women.  The altos sounded less secure than the sopranos.  Here, as elsewhere, there was plenty of contrast, and key modulations.  There was a need for more attention to consistent vowel shaping.

Varying tonalities featured in the ‘Benedictus’ also.  The choir a few times were not totally with the organ rhythmically.  The high notes for the sopranos were excellent.  However, I found grating the constant ‘Hosannerin’, having been tutored in choirs to make a brief glottal stop after the final ‘a’ in the word.

In the ‘Agnus Dei’, the ‘qui tollis’ was most beautifully introduced from the tenor and mezzo, soon joined by stratospheric sopranos.  It was delightful to hear ‘Agnus dei’ pronounced beautifully, and not as ‘Agnes Day’, who made an appearance on the radio in the morning.

The Missa Brevis is an impressive work, and some but not all of this was conveyed by this performance.  Douglas Mews had a huge role in this; the work ended with a magnificent postlude from him.

The ‘Nelson’ Mass is a very different work, although it too featured a grand organ introduction (in this version)..  Then the soprano appears early in the piece; her ‘Kyrie’ was clear and strong.  The choir men, however, were not quite in tempo for a bit following their entry.

In this mass in this mass there are wonderful contrasts between the grand and the intimate.  The ‘Gloria’ introduced the soloists – soprano, tenor and bass; all were first-class, and a joy to hear.  Douglas Mews’s variations of registrations throughout echoed the instruments that would be heard in the full orchestral version, and were splendidly realised.  Simon Christie gave us some gorgeous low notes in ‘Qui tollis’ against Mews’s gorgeous organ.  Rowena Simpson’s ‘deprecationem nostram’ was superb, likeweise the ‘quoniam’.  Some of the men’s vowels were what Peter Godfrey would have called ‘agricultural’.  Intonation was more secure here than in the preceding work, but then the Haydn is much easier to pitch.  Rowena Simpson had plenty of radiant solo singing in the here, whereas she did not have much to do in the Missa Brevis.

However, pitch dropped ajust a little in the ‘Credo’ movement.  The lively parts of the ‘Credo’, such as ‘Et incarnatus est’ found the choir flexible and agile.  ‘The ‘Et resurrexit’ was taken very fast, but the choir coped.  There are so many felicities in this wonderful work.

The ‘Sanctus’ received a splendid performance.  A feature of the ‘Benedictus’ was the beautifully phrased and articulated organ part.  There were a few raw notes from the tenors, but the rest of the choir sounded very good.  As elsewhere, the writing provided plenty of climaxes.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ was cheerful in character, yet subtle too, with complex interweaving of the soloists’ quartet.  They then joined the choir in the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ section.

Altogether, it was a most successful concert.  The voices soared, as did the audience’s spirits.  Thank you Papa Haydn, Kodály and Bach Choir, accompanist and soloists.  St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent e with its beautifully restored pipe organ, its fine acoustics and its good lighting.


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