Marvellous Waves of Sound from Swansea Bach Choir

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parsons, Guerrero, Byrd, Daquin, Distler, Pachebel, Bach, Lauridsen: Swansea Bach Choir / Greg Hallam (conductor), Glenn Crooks, organ, St Gabriel’s, Brynmill, Swansea, 9.12.2012. (NR)

The Swansea Bach Choir gave their annual Christmas concert at the Victorian church of St Gabriel’s in Brynmill, a Swansea suburb overlooking the bay. The venue was smaller than usual for the choir, but the acoustic was strong enough to cope with their impressive sound – a sound honed over nearly 50 years now, with no sign of flagging.

It was an attractive programme – standard favourites such as the Ave Maria of Robert Parsons, and Guerrero’s Canite tuba, and, anchoring the first half, a performance (minus the Credo) of Byrd’s great four-part Mass, split into three sections and interspersed with motets, carols, readings, and a pair organ voluntaries, two rustic Noels by Daquin, played with appropriate sprightliness by Glenn Crooks. Byrd’s setting is restrained, even austere at times, designed for a small recusant household, but the larger choir gave it some extra grandeur without losing the simplicity: the beautifully plangent overlapping lines of the Agnus Dei were particularly well sung. On one or two occasions throughout the concert the opening vowel entries seemed a touch insecure or hesitant, but once the choir got into its stride it produced a marvellous wave of sound, the male voices in spite of their limited numbers providing the firmest of foundations.

The second half had more modern pieces, traditionally a speciality of this choir under its founder John Hugh Thomas and carried on expertly by Greg Hallam. Particularly interesting was the elaborate and intricate setting by Hugo Distler of ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’, really a set of free variations on Michael Pretorius’s melody, never losing touch with the original but discovering all sorts of unexpected and striking routes away from it. Distler, probably the leading German church musician of the 1930s, committed suicide during the war, by all accounts unable to reconcile his faith with the necessity of working for the Nazi regime; his work seems strangely neglected in this country, and on the evidence of this piece deserves much more prominence.

The Lutheran connotations, contrasting with the largely Catholic world of the first half, were enhanced by two further organ pieces, variants on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, by Pachelbel and Bach, before the choir, having opened with Byrd’s setting of O magnum mysterium, ended with the justly-celebrated version by Morten Lauridsen. Any number of composers over the centuries have had a go at this text, but few can have found a more delicately sculpted conveying of the wonder in it, to which the choir did every justice.

Neil Reeve