The Birmingham Bach Choir Brings Passiontide Music to Tewkesbury Abbey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scarlatti, Bach, MacMillan, Whitacre, Leighton, Birmingham Bach Choir, Martyn Rawles (organ), Paul Spicer (conductor), Tewkesbury Abbey, 12.4.2014. (JQ)

Song of the Lamb
Domenico Scarlatti – Stabat Mater
Johann Sebastian Bach – Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV 544
Bach – Lobet den Herrn, BWV 230
James MacMillan – Lux aeterna (2008)
Eric Whitacre – When David Heard
Kenneth Leighton – Et resurrexit (1966)
MacMillan – The Song of the Lamb (2008)
Leighton – Let all the world in every corner sing (1965)


Each half of this programme of music for Passiontide contained links. Both of the composers featured in Part One – Scarlatti and Bach – were born in 1685 while most of the music in the second half was by Kenneth Leighton and one of his most distinguished pupils, James MacMillan.

The Birmingham Bach Choir describes itself as a ‘large chamber choir’. For this concert they numbered just over seventy singers. Like many non-professional choirs I suspect they have the usual problem in recruiting tenors and basses. There were 18 basses listed and just 10 tenors but the altos, mainly female, numbered 24 and there were 29 sopranos. Since the acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey is quite resonant, which often masks a choir’s inner lines, almost inevitably this numerical imbalance meant that the choral sound was often somewhat soprano-dominated. The tenors, despite being numerically the smallest section, gave a good account of themselves during the evening but it seemed to me that the bass section was rather underpowered: perhaps this was by design to avoid heaviness of sound but I suspect that the basses could have been more assertive.

The opening work was the only choral piece on the programme that was previously unknown to me. It’s not known when Domenico Scarlatti composed his Stabat Mater, though it may have been written sometime between 1714 and 1719. The work is scored for a choir that is divided up into as many as 10 parts with continuo accompaniment – here played by Martyn Rawles on the organ. Cast in ten short movements it played for just over 25 minutes in this performance. In his excellent programme notes Paul Spicer suggested that the complexity and number of choral lines might account for the fact that it’s not heard all that often in concert. That’s probably true but on the evidence of this performance it may also be because the music isn’t desperately interesting. I hasten to say that I don’t blame Spicer and his choir for this: I think the fault lies with the composer. For one thing, had Scarlatti set some of the movements for solo voices there would have been more variety. As it was, 10 successive choral movements failed to hold my interest. Perhaps if I’d heard the piece sung by a smaller ensemble and in a less resonant acoustic I might have enjoyed it more but too often the choral sound was cloudy and the words indistinct. I’m afraid I didn’t find that the musical invention in the music was sufficiently strong to hold my interest.

The two pieces by Bach rather overshadowed Scarlatti’s work. Martyn Rawles put the abbey’s Milton Organ through its paces in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor. The elaborate and inventive Prelude was given a lively rendition and in the Fugue I admired the clarity which Rawles brought to the various lines. He worked out Bach’s fugal writing spaciously and with increasing majesty as the music unfolded. Just as enjoyable was the choir’s account of the motet Lobet den Herrn. The singers brought life and vitality to Bach’s energetic fugal writing and overall I had the impression that they were more convinced by this music than by Scarlatti’s. The concluding ‘Hallelujah’ section was joyful and energised.

After the interval we heard music of our own time. I’ve heard all the choral pieces before but, to the best of my recollection, always sung by small chamber choirs so it was interesting to hear the music sung by a larger ensemble. James MacMillan’s Lux aeterna is one of his fine Strathclyde Motets. These are pieces that the composer expressly designed for liturgical use in the Roman Catholic liturgy and while he does not forsake compositional rigour in them the pieces are intended nonetheless to be within the scope of a proficient church choir. Lux aeterna is a beautiful piece and though the music is clearly contemporary in its style it seems to me to be firmly rooted in the mainstream tradition of unaccompanied church music. The Birmingham Bach Choir sang it very well. They were also right on top of MacMillan’s The Song of the Lamb, which came later in the programme. I first heard this piece through the very fine recording that Paul Spicer made with his Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir (review). It’s a setting of words from the Book of Revelation and the text clearly fired MacMillan’s imagination. The music is more challenging to hear and, I should imagine, to sing than is Lux aeterna and it sounds very arresting. The piece made a strong impression here and the choir rose to its challenges very successfully, not least the sopranos who are required at one point to sustain a loud top A for 11 slow bars. The singing was committed and powerful, just like the music.

On that Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir CD Paul Spicer shrewdly mixed music by MacMillan with that of Kenneth Leighton, his composition teacher at Edinburgh University, and he did so again in this programme.  Et resurrexit, a piece for solo organ described as ‘Theme, Fantasy and Fugue’, was new to me and I could not have wished a better introduction to it than this stunning performance by Martyn Rawles. Though the piece may have been inspired by the Resurrection of Christ there’s an audible sense of struggle in much of the music. The Resurrection, one is reminded, was not an easily-won victory. Rawles maximised the dynamic contrasts in the music to tremendous effect and used the full resources of the Tewkesbury organ expertly. The concluding fugue, in which the excitement grew incrementally as the volume and tension increased, was particularly exciting. The last few pages were especially virtuosic and I was left deeply impressed by both the music and the performance it received. Leighton’s anthem for choir and organ,  Let all the world in every corner sing, is an exciting piece and Rawles and the choir combined to make it an exuberant end to the evening.

Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard sets the same text that Thomas Weelkes used in his celebrated anthem. I first encountered the piece on disc a few years ago and though, until now, I’d never heard a live performance, I’ve heard a few subsequent recordings. I haven’t really changed my initial view of the piece, namely that it has an impressive opening and close but that it rather loses its way in the middle. In this central section Whitacre makes some fragmentary musical material go rather a long way. I can’t help feeling that editing two or three minutes out of this central section would tauten the work significantly. However, Paul Spicer and his choir gave a good, convincing account of the piece. The central section includes many brief silences, which are important, and these were scrupulously observed and thus made their proper effect. The gravity of the start and finish was well conveyed as was the ardour of the climaxes.

This was an interesting programme that was well executed. The Birmingham Bach Choir is a capable and enterprising ensemble.

John Quinn     

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