Impressive and stylish performance of Bach’s great Mass in B minor celebrates choir’s 50 years

Celebrating 50 years: The Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter Walls

Bach: Mass in B minor

With Nicola Holt (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto), Lachlan Craig (tenor), Simon Christie (bass), Douglas Mews (organ) and the Chiesa Ensemble

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 13 May 2018, 3.00pm

A handsome A4-size printed programme with a good size of typeface greeted the almost capacity audience at the concert.  Inside was a potted history of the choir, and good programme notes, credited to the internet source, plus entire libretto of the Mass, with English translations.

This work, one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire, is Bach’s only Mass, though made up partly of a number of earlier pieces, written independently.  It is fraught with difficulties for all participants.  Scholarship has waxed and waned somewhat over the 50 years of the Bach Choir’s life, as to the ‘correct’ techniques for singing and playing this baroque repertoire.  However, with baroque expert Peter Walls at the helm, the style was consistent and the performance was vigorous and stylish.

A large part of the success of the performance was due to the Chiesa Ensemble.  This orchestral ensemble was made up of professional players from the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, 21 in number.  Their playing was always good, and often brilliant.  The team of soloists was also very fine, and thoroughly in tune with the demanding requirements of their roles.

The 50-strong choir acquitted itself well, for the most part.  It began in fine form with the Kyrie clearly enunciated – ‘k’ is a difficult consonant to get over when singing, but there was no doubt about it here.  It only took a moment for me to think ‘Now we’re in for a good time’.  Excellent bassoon playing soon made itself felt (Robert Weeks, David Angus), conversely, as so often with amateur choirs, the tenors were somewhat weak at this stage.

However, above all, the sheer majesty and complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is mind-blowing.  Confidence and accuracy built up after a bit, and soon the singing became as resplendent in its grandeur as was the score.  Christe eleison is a duet for soprano and alto.  The voices of the two women matched amazingly well, while the accompanying string-playing was notably fine.  Here and elsewhere during solos the choir got to sit down – the men at the rear of the sanctuary, the women on seats along the sides of the church.  They moved quickly and unobtrusively in and out of position each time, as the soloists in turn moved in and out of their respective positions.

The repeat of the Kyrie began with basses, making a solid sound, though they were not as flexible as the women’s voices.  This section was more harmonically interesting than the first iteration.

The Gloria featured a wonderful brass opening section; the trumpets of Mark Carter, Barrett Hocking and Toby Pringle sounded splendid in this responsive acoustic.  The movement was taken quite fast.  Lilting passages helped to convey the meaning of the words, such as ‘…on earth peace to men of goodwill’.  Continuously florid passages were handled superbly well by the choir.  The trumpets celebrated with great élan.

Next came the beautiful solo aria: Laudamus te.  It was sung at a faster pace than I have heard it before, but all the florid twists were beautifully negotiated.  Accompaniment from strings and organ was splendid.  Though not playing baroque era instruments or modern copies, the strings played in baroque style.  The chorus’s Gratias agimus tibi was magnificently sung, with trumpets and timpani (Laurence Reese) again to the fore.

Then soprano and tenor soloists sang the lovely duet Domine Deus, with a gorgeous flute obbligato (Kirstin Eade, Nancy Luther).   Lachlan Craig proved to have a very pleasant voice, while the flute playing was wonderful; the whole effect was most uplifting.  The choir returned for Qui tollis, which appropriately employed a lower pitch, and subdued and even anguished tones.  The musical lines conveyed this, while contemplatinh Christ’s redemption of man’s sin.  Significantly, the final chord resolved back into a major key.

There followed a solo for alto, Qui sedes ad dextram.  Maaike Christie-Beekman’s words were very clear.  Every run and turn was beautifully executed.  Bass Simon Christie followed with Quonism tu solus sanctus.  He sang this difficult aria most competently, with conviction.  The choir returned to sing the final chorus in this movement, and in this half of the performance: Cum Sancto Spiritu, in very lively and joyful fashion, with a brisk pace.  It was rhythmically strong, and tenors acquitted themselves well here, however the sopranos were not fully in agreement on the top note.  The final ‘Amen’ was sung with an emphatic flourish.

After the interval came the Credo.  It had a calm opening.  The choir’s intonation was a little rusty after their break, in Credo in unum deum.  It took a little time to get back into full fettle.  The two women soloists excelled in Et in unum Dominum.  They had a delightful orchestral accompaniment, featuring particularly the sumptuous oboes of Stacey Dixon and Louise Cox.  This was one of the finest moments of the afternoon.

The chorus Et incarnatus est began with smooth, reassuring music, but soon changed at the Crucifixus.  The intervals and chords employed expressed suffering and anguish, only to be abruptly overtaken by Et resurrexit’s joy and jubilation.  There were so many strands in the chorus’s line Cujus regni non erit finis – perhaps depicting the many souls in heaven.  The chorus contribution was very grand.

Simon Christie sang the splendid bass aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum, with lovely back-up from oboes and bassoons.  Perhaps a bigger voice would have made more impact, but Christie sang with great clarity and accuracy, and pleasing timbre.  Confiteor unum baptisma had a flowing style, but the choir sounded a little uncertain in places, and also in Et expecto resurrectionem.

Bach gave the Sanctus a rousing and imposing character, unlike the text’s treatment in numerous other masses.  At the beginning it was treated harmonically rather than contrapuntally; it had the weight of majesty about it.  As it proceeded, the music became more florid; Pleni sunt coeli haa a fugal setting, very fast.   An exultant Osanna ended the movement.

Benedictus was sung by the solo tenor accompanied by a gorgeous flute and continuo.  It was very gracefully sung.  The choir did not start together in the repeat Osanna, and the singers were almost overwhelmed by the brilliant trumpets and organ (mainly, Douglas Mews played a quiet nd tasteful continuo).

The Agnus Dei  was an aria for alto, and was sung exquisitely by Maaike Christie-Beekman with marvellous strings accompanying.  The final chorus Dona nobis pacem had grandeur about it; the jubilant Amen ended the concert with the choir still singing very well.  It takes stamina to last the distance; all performers and especially Peter Walls, had it in spades.  The audience applauded with great enthusiasm.  Well done, all, but especially J.S. Bach.



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