For their May Concert last year, Aberdeen Sinfonietta combined forces with Aberdeen Bach Choir for a performance that included John Rutter's Magnificat. For their March Concert this year, they teamed up with Haddo House Choral & Operatic Society to present an earlier but equally unique and tuneful work, the St. Cecilia Mass by Charles Gounod. Gounod is remembered above all for his operatic oeuvre most particularly his version of the Faust legend. The St. Cecilia Mass is not that far removed from the dramatic gesture and sound world of opera so Sinfonietta's choice of guest conductor, David Jones, renowned for his vast experience of operatic repertoire was just the man for Sunday's Concert.
Gounod's Mass took up the second half of the concert and the two works in the first half were by composers who are also closely associated with opera. Many of the works of Berlioz are not strictly operas but the composer would actually have liked them to be just that. La Damnation de Faust has in fact been staged as an opera in Paris and elsewhere. Georges Bizet composed one of the most popular and successful operas ever, namely Carmen. It is sad that Bizet went to his grave thinking that this opera was a dismal failure. Apparently he went off to César Franck's composition classes to learn "how to do it properly". How many operas by César Franck are you familiar with? Well there is Hulda and Ghiselle. I only know that because I looked them up on the internet, but nearly everybody, even non musical people have heard of Carmen and can whistle some of its tunes. There must have been something about this composer's self confidence that was lacking because according to leader Bryan Dargie's excellent programme note, Bizet's rather splendid Symphony in C, composed when he was just seventeen, was neither published nor performed in his lifetime.
Sunday's concert opened in gloriously celebratory style with the Overture, "The Roman Carnival" by Berlioz. Agile scurrying strings ignited the festive mood of the music. The andante with cor anglais played so beautifully by Fiona Gordon led superbly colourful playing by the woodwind section before the festive mood returned once again. David Jones conducted a performance that had the every bit of the curtain raising excitement and promise of an actual operatic overture.
The opening movement of Bizet's Symphony in C was every bit as lusty and lively thanks to fantastically alert and precise string playing. There was some great playing by the winds too: Geoffrey Bridge on oboe, Margaret Preston on flute and indeed all the woodwinds and of course the horn calls played by Robert Martin. I loved the little bit of pizzicato string playing in the middle of the movement - very spicy indeed!
Again it was the woodwind that delighted us at the opening of the slow movement, led off by Geoffrey Bridge. The fugal section starting on cellos and basses through violas and on into the upper strings was splendidly well played.
The third movement is marked Minuet and trio although it is a bit lively at the opening for a minuet though not sharp enough for a scherzo. The sweeping string melody did have the sway of the minuet however and the trio with its rustic hurdy - gurdy sound from the cellos was splendidly imaginative. Can you hear me Bizet, wherever you are - you're pretty good you know!
I loved the dizzying finale too. It has a hint of a Moto Perpetuo about it. This was a great performance of a very imaginative work.
Gounod's St. Cecilia Mass is very unusual too. At one point in the twentieth century it could not have been performed - far too populist - far too tuneful. The Haddo House Choir trained by their musical director Alice E. Dennis was splendid. There are far more female than male voices but somehow the singing was remarkably well balanced. The Mass uses three soloists frequently in ensemble but sometimes individually too. Soprano Aoife O'Connell was quite splendid in the Benedictus - an unusual setting since most composers from Mozart to Bruckner set this for vocal quartet. Tenor Iain Milne was fantastic in the Sanctus with repetitions from the full choir and Bass Colin Brockie sang magnificently in the Domine Deus and there was a marvellous duet with Iain Milne later on in the Qui tollis peccata Mundi. The many trios for soloists were deliciously well balanced.
The Offertoire was a lovely interlude for orchestra alone - warm harmonies from the strings and superb solos from flute, oboe and bassoon.
There are some orchestral colours in this music that are so "over the top" that I almost wanted to laugh - for instance the use of piccolo and harp at the end of the Credo and when Gounod brings back the piccolo in the Prayer at the end and has it set to a kind of military march.
I only just managed to hear the keyboard used as an organ near the end. Is the Music Hall Organ not in working order these days? If Drew Tulloch had been able to give it full welly that would have been really magnificent even if once again "over the top". Anyway thanks to absolutely everybody for a thoroughly tuneful and enjoyable performance.