Swansea Bach Choir Maintains its High Standards.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Blow, Purcell, Tallis, Gibbons, Pärt: Swansea Bach Choir/Greg Hallam (conductor), James Gough (organ), Rebecca Herman (cello), St Mary’s Church, Swansea, 17.3.2012.(NR)

Blow – Salvator mundi
Purcell – Hear my prayer
Gibbons  – Fantasia in four parts
J. S. Bach – Cello Suite no 2, in D minor, BWV 1008
Arvo Pärt – Tribute to Caesar
Tallis  –  In jejunio et fletu
J. S. Bach -Trio Sonata no. 4 for organ, BWV 528
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227

It was good to see the Swansea Bach Choir evidently prospering in the hands of their new director, Greg Hallam, following the retirement last year of the choir’s founder John Hugh Thomas. They offered a very attractive programme: a pot-pourri of Bach himself – for choir, solo organ and solo cello – English Renaissance and Baroque composers, and, for a spiky dash of modernism, an intriguing piece by Arvo Pärt. This was a setting of verses from St Matthew, chapter 22, where Jesus tells the Pharisees to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s: a setting which at times sounded like a contemporary re-imagining of twelfth-century organum, with bursts and fragments of melody rising and falling over sustained block chords. It was sung with great conviction, and the deep acoustic of St Mary’s suited it perfectly.

It is something of a scandal that John Blow’s music should be so neglected, and it was good to have a chance to hear his five-part Salvator mundi, probably written for a patron’s private Catholic devotions. It fuses (as Purcell was to do) late-seventeenth century French influence with the older English choral tradition. Blow seems heavier, less graceful than his younger contemporary, his more extreme harmonies sometimes striving after anguish rather than truly anguished, but the shift halfway through the piece from dissonance into luminous simplicity was as expressive as anything coming at that time from across the Channel. It was significant that the piece didn’t lose much, if anything, by having Purcell’s famous Hear my prayer sung immediately after it – radiantly beautiful Protestant anguish this time – or another English Catholic masterpiece, Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu, a little later. In all these works the line and balance of the singing was exemplary.

The choral pieces were interspersed with instrumental music. James Gough, a rising young organist originally from Neath, played a four-part fantasia by Gibbons on a delightful six-stop white-and-gold painted wheel-on chamber organ built for the Monteverdi Choir’s Bach cantata pilgrimage of 2000. In the second half Gough moved aloft to the main church organ for one of Bach’s trio sonatas, music in which elegant lightness and massive accumulation blend irresistibly. It was performed with real style and aplomb – this organist is one to watch. Earlier, the young cellist Rebecca Herman had played one of the Bach cello suites – the second in D minor, with its opening Prelude which Casals used famously to play with wonderful liberty of rubato. There was less of that here, but much vigorous and forceful playing as well as real inwardness in the Sarabande. For a solo cello, though, the resonant acoustic proved more problematic, leaching out some of the rhythmic bounce. I would like to hear her play in a more intimate setting.

Organ and cello joined as continuo accompanists for Bach’s great motet Jesu, meine Freude. This really put the choir on their mettle, but they never faltered in the face of the increasing complexity and virtuosity of the contrapuntal lines. A trio of soloists sang with special poignancy, and the overall shape of the work was always firmly in view. Greg Hallam is to be congratulated on maintaining his distinguished predecessor’s high standards.

Neil Reeve