Page last updated December 8, 2008 by Ian Downie

 

Aberdeen Bach Choir Make a Joyful Noise

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday, 07 December 2008

Gordon Jack continues to stamp his own powerful musical personality upon the programming of the Bach Choir. For the first time that I can remember there was music with an explicit Christmas theme for the Choir's winter concert. Being a singer himself and having a wide knowledge of an extended repertoire, he did not choose the usual hackneyed carols or the ubiquitous music of John Rutter however. Carols there were, but he presented them beautifully wrapped up in the imaginative and expressive settings of Geoffrey Bush's A Christmas Cantata. Then to warm up both the choir and the audience, Gordon Jack had chosen two hugely contrasting modern Christmas pieces, A Babe is Born by William Mathias and This Christmas Night by Malcolm Williamson. The first of these certainly did the job. Fanfare-like flourishes on the organ expertly played by Drew Tulloch did not get quite the same response from the choir at first, but by the second verse the singing had picked up and by the last the choir commanded the full attention of the capacity audience. Malcolm Williamson's piece has softer harmonic and rhythmic language than the spiky and invigorating sounds typical of Mathias but the warm harmonies and seamless flow of the word setting was nicely handled by the choir.

For Bush's A Christmas Cantata the choir were joined by soprano soloist Julia Doyle and Drew Tulloch moved from the organ to the piano. His part is crucial in this piece especially in the opening carol The Seven Joys of Mary since Bush leaves the vocal parts relatively simple with the voices often in unison and only alternating male and female voices to give contrast and a sense of impetus to the music. It is the piano that carries the emotional charge of the music rather than the voices and Drew Tulloch's playing delivered all the necessary colour changes.

There were some lovely colourful effects in the vocal writing too however. Julia Doyle backed by the gentle female chorus in Little Jesus, sweetly sleep, the chiming bell sounds of Rejoice! in the Czech Carol and the impressive shouts of Herod mirrored in the piano part were all splendid. I was impressed by Julia Doyle's singing in the stratospherically high outer verses of I sing of a maiden and the conclusion of the piece which mirrors its opening was a particularly nice touch making the end feel like a homecoming.

After the interval Navidad Nuestra by the Argentinean composer Ariel Ramirez was a real touch of the exotic. Here the choir were joined by ace guitarist Ian Watt with percussion played by Isabel John and Chris Overton. I suspect that some of the men were just a little bit fazed by having to sing the opening piece La Anunciacion at breakneck speed in Latin American Spanish. I have to admit that I am no expert in that area of linguistics and obviously many of the words do elide together when sung quickly but I did sense a feeling of uncertainty from time to time. I did not lose any of the words during Julia Doyle's delightful solo El Nacimiento and the final piece La Huida sounded absolutely splendid.

The final work, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms has no connection with Christmas. The Bach Choir have done it several times before and it did feel that here they were on home territory. The twenty third Psalm with Julia Doyle accompanied on harp by Helen MacLeod was a moving experience. Apparently Bernstein specifically stated that this part should not be sung by a woman but surely even his heart would have melted with the sound of Julia Doyle's singing. The thrilling rhythms and the sudden upwellings of melody like flowers in the Israeli desert were just some of the delights to be heard in the Bach Choir's performance of this splendid work.

Review contributed by Alan Cooper