Aberdeen Bach Choir: Magnificat

St Machar's Cathedral Sunday 27 March 2011

Aberdeen Bach Choir’s concert on Sunday was to have been their Christmas special but because of December’s unusually severe weather it had to be postponed until March. Sometimes a rescheduled concert, especially a Christmas one, held well out of season, will attract only a sparse audience but last night every seat in the Cathedral was taken; all the tickets were sold and ushers were doing their best to cram in as many extra people as possible. Why should this be? The fact that Dame Emma Kirkby had been booked as the replacement soprano soloist had a lot to do with it but the musical rumour mill in Aberdeen has been red hot lately with the news that members of the Bach Choir were saying that their new conductor Peter Parfitt was something really special and so everyone wanted to see (and hear) for themselves.

Even before the concert started, his programme note was one of the most impressive I have read. Superbly well written and packed with pertinent and easily digested information it was a delight to read.
The idea of an all-Magnificat concert might seem limited in scope. Not at all! Peter Parfitt had chosen a staggeringly broad variety of musical styles and composers to illustrate the almost infinite possibilities inherent in the application of musical imagination. John Rutter and J. S. Bach were well known and popular choices while the Magnificat settings of Hieronymus Praetorius and Pergolesi provided a really worthwhile introduction to music that was new to most of the audience. 

As the performance began, it soon became obvious that in Peter Parfitt, the Bach Choir have found a real star. The opening of John Rutter’s Magnificat fairly sizzled with vibrant excitement both in the white hot choral singing and the playing of Aberdeen Sinfonietta which back in partnership with the choir were giving of their very best. Every section of the choir responded to Parfitt’s forceful and dynamic conducting and it was particularly satisfying to hear the tenors in such good voice.

Drew Tulloch’s organ playing also contributed greatly to the overall effectiveness - in the Quia fecit for instance. This music does not only have fire in its belly however, there were acres of caressingly gentle music where the singing softened, broadened out and melted easily into Rutter’s soft lush melodic passages made still more astonishingly beautiful as Emma Kirkby’s clear solo soprano floated stress free above choir and orchestra lending an element of sheer luminous wonderment to the performance before the exciting percussive opening music was reflected again in the conclusion of the Magnificat.

Pergolesi’s setting in B♭ was much shorter with tremendous busy excitement in the strings as well as in the vocal writing. Solo sections featuring Emma Kirkby and counter tenor Giles Pilgrim Morris and then tenor Malcolm Bennett and baritone Roderick Bryce were also brief but rather delectable. This intensely concentrated setting made a fine contrast with the broader sweep of Rutter’s imaginings.

Magnificat Quinto Tono by Hieronymus Praetorius (a new one on me though I was familiar with his unrelated namesake Michael) was an opportunity for the choir to perform unaccompanied which they did splendidly well. Like the Rutter, this setting interpolated music that was not part of the Magnificat itself. I particularly liked the varied vocal settings of the verses of In Dulci Jubilo reminding us again that this was a Christmas concert.
By the time we got to the famous Bach Magnificat I feared that both audience and choir would be getting tired but if anything this was the freshest sounding performance of all.  Peter Parfitt powered up the music so that the spirit of Bach came through with a force that reinvigorated everybody. The glorious sounds of baroque trumpet and organ flute stops lit up the cathedral at once. The soloists were joined by Aberdeen’s own Moira Docherty who sang the opening soprano solo precisely and beautifully and she later joined with Emma Kirkby and Giles Pilgrim Morris in a delicious rendering of Bach’s lovely trio setting. We were reminded more than once of Bach’s unique brilliance in matching voices with tiny instrumental combinations something he uses so often in the St. Matthew Passion. There was the rich blend of cello with Roderick Bryce’s beautifully warm baritone and possibly the highlight of the whole work, the Esurientes accompanied by two flutes and sung with such clarity and refinement by Giles Pilgrim Morris.  The looks of enjoyment shining from Emma Kirkby’s face as she listened to the other soloists, the choir and the orchestra, in addition to her own wonderful singing, must be worth so much more than anything I can possibly say; and as for the roar of appreciation from the choir for their new conductor, well, I don’t believe I have ever heard anything like that from the Bach Choir (or indeed any other) before.       

Review contributed by Alan Cooper