For their December Concert this year, Aberdeen Bach Choir under their brilliant Musical Director Dr Paul Tierney, had chosen a programme of inspirational French Music, composed in the period between the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th century. It was performed under the general title Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light) which comes from the seventh section, Communion (Lux aeterna), of Duruflé’s Requiem. An apposite choice of a title, since the singing of the Bach Choir was little short of radient throughout.
Saturday’s programme opened with Gabriel Fauré’s delightfully melodic Cantique de Jean Racine. I was particularly impressed by the fact that although the Bach Choir is a huge choir filling the whole of the front of the Cathedral, Paul Tierney had managed to customise the singing of the different sections of the choir so that there was a gentleness and more importantly a transparency of the sound in much of this first piece. Of course, there was a magnificent crescendo of voices too, and this was made all the more impressive by the refinement of what had gone before. There was something of that special quality in the choir’s performance of the second piece in the programme, Olivier Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium! This is a fiendishly complex and difficult piece both in rhythmic writing and harmonies. Amazingly however, the piece can be made to sound quite straightforward in performance. And that is what the Bach Choir managed to do so well. This is because the conductor himself takes care of the difficulties and prepares straight paths for his singers to follow. There are certainly slight harmonic edges in the piece, but it actually followed Fauré’s music remarkably well, sounding beautifully clear and consonant. This was assisted in no small way by the organist Kamil Mika who took care perfectly of the accompanying organ part.
His reward was the opportunity to give us a special organ solo in the form of Choral varié sur le thème du “Veni Creator” an early composition by Maurice Duruflé whose music for choir we were going to hear in the second part of the concert. Kamil gave us a clean clear performance of his solo full of organ colours and with a majestic crescendo of a conclusion.
However it was with what was to follow that we were to see and hear the organ at its most terrifyingly virtuosic. Kamil Mika was given the job of filling the performance on organ of what is sometimes given to a large orchestra. I watched as not only Kamil working almost frantically with hands and feet, but as his page turner and occasional stop puller who throughout the piece was having to rush from one end of the organ to the other to keep things going. This was another powerfully challenging work though in a completely different way. It was Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. With organ and the different sections of the choir having a dizzying whirlwind of rhythmic entries, the challenge was to keep everything slotting together perfectly and that is exactly what was achieved. The first and last movements of the Gloria give us explosions of choral rejoicing. In the Laudamus Te and the Dominus Fili Unigenite the music assumes an almost riotous sense of good fun. When criticised for this, Poulenc is reported to have replied, ‘While writing it I had in mind the Crozzoli frescos with angels sticking out their tongues, and also some solemn-looking Benedictine monks that I saw playing football one day.’ That’s why I can’t help liking Poulenc. His music so often has its own special sense of fun. On Saturday, the Bach choir managed to catch that spirit splendidly well. However the Gloria also has its serious sides too. This came through spectacularly well in the three soprano solos sung so magnificently by Heather Ireson. The programme has her down as a mezzo, yet some of these solos are for high soprano. Heather has an astonishing range. She was often powerfully dramatic but with moments of lovely gentleness too. In the Domine Deus, the organ plays music that sounds extraordinarily mystical. Heather in her solos responded soaringly to that idea. I loved the way in which sections of the choir provided her with gorgeously gentle backing adding to that special sense of religious mysticism.
The final work in the programme was totally different from anything that had gone before. This was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. In many ways it is quite a dark work. It creates a fusion between Gregorian plainchant and flowing romantic melody. It was in this piece that the large scale vocal sounds of the Bach Choir paid off so well. Again the organ provided an important part of the music. In the Kyrie Eleison control of dynamics in the different sections of the choir worked well, there was a marvellous blossoming of sound with dazzling colours from the organ. The Offertory opened with dark organ music then the altos came in beautifully. The organ picked up, injecting energy into the music in a dramatic way. It was here that we were introduced to the second of the fine soloists of the evening. Baritone Arthur Bruce comes from a powerfully well-developed operatic background. In the Hostias et preces tibi, he was magnificent, supported by dark organ backing. In the Sanctus and Benedictus, the organ had light rippling music supporting clean soaring sopranos and other female voices. With the Hosannah it was the men who shone forth. I was surprised at how short the Benedictus was. Many other composers make much more of it.
It was with the Pie Jesu that we reached another special highlight of the work. Here, once again was Heather Ireson showing both her rich mezzo tones and still easily able to soar aloft as required. She was twinned with the rich tones of a cello played by Alison MacDonald. The very mention of her name assures us of the fine quality of playing she never fails to provide.
The Communion (Lux aeterna) provided other musical highlights. From the organ, there was a delightful solo passage that employed an attractive reed stop, then the sopranos had a lovely melody beneath which the choir provided an ooh backing. How delicious was that? In the Libera Me came another short baritone solo then the work ended with sumptuous delicacy with In Paradisum. This was a gentle and perhaps genteel ending to a gloriously multicoloured performance.