As the highlight event of their 50th Anniversary Season, Aberdeen Bach Choir chose one of Bach’s most glorious achievements for their annual Spring Concert, the St. Matthew Passion - and a truly spectacular performance it was too. It was not just the huge choral set pieces, such as the opening, with two choirs and two orchestras calling to one another, topped off by the soaring sound of the girls’ voices in the ripieno choir from St Margaret’s School, conducted by Drew Tulloch, that were spectacular. The far more intimate passages that use just one solo voice and a handful of solo instruments were equally powerful in their impact. This is indeed a marvellous work, almost cinematic in its impact, with its wide screen choral vistas or its intimate close-ups.
Holding this whole performance together in the absence of Conductor James Lobban, who unfortunately is ill, was the man who held the position of Conductor of the Bach Choir before Mr Lobban, Graham Wiseman. In fact, Mr Wiseman’s connections with the Choir go back to its very roots, for he worked as accompanist to the Choir in the glory days of Willan Swainson.
His tempi were on the whole quite brisk. This was particularly noticeable in the chorales, possibly not to everyone’s taste. It suited me though, because it ensured a lively and consistently intense response from the choir. This also injected a sense of dramatic urgency into the music drawing the whole performance together and pushing it forward rather than just punctuating it. Dramatic interruptions by the choir came in exactly on cue and without any fuss. The cry of “Barrabas!” with the organ open all stops, played by George Chittenden, was just one brilliantly well timed example. Graham Wiseman chose to sit down to conduct the solo music. This was a good idea since it helped focus attention on the solo performers and give the music its more intimate ambience. I was impressed by the way the conductor brought his gestures down to a minimum here, knowing exactly where just a tweak of the baton was needed to keep everything moving without a hitch.
The consistently rich, well-disciplined singing of the choirs was just one highlight of the performance. The entire team of solo singers was sensational, right across the board.
Andrew Staples as the Evangelist gave one of the finest performances I have ever heard. The quality of his voice was pure gold and his dramatic and emotional underlining of the text was just right, never too much or too little. Håkan Ekenäs as Christus also gave a warmly attractive performance, full of authority. It was hard to believe that this was the first time he had sung the part in English. He did so impeccably and without the slightest hesitation. The third “big” part in the work, Bach gives to the alto soloist and the celebrated recording by The Bach Choir (not the Aberdeen one) conducted by Dr. Reginald Jacques in November 1948 and featuring Kathleen Ferrier would be hard to better. Mezzo-soprano Anna Grevelius had something reminiscent of Ferrier’s vocal quality in her voice and her arias were beautifully sung. One could not have asked for better soloists than tenor Ben Johnson and baritone Jacques Imbrailo either, indeed I cannot remember a performance when all the soloists have been so well matched.
It seems a pity to leave the instrumental players till last, since they contributed so much to the success of Sunday’s performance. They were of course Aberdeen Sinfonietta, and several of them gave magnificent solo performances. In that respect, I really have to mention leader Bryan Dargie and cellist Gareth John. I hope the others will forgive me but otherwise this becomes a list rather than a review. Rest assured, however, you did not go unnoticed and your contribution will not be forgotten.
Review contributed by Alan G. Cooper