REVIEW: Aberdeen Bach Choir, Christmas Concert, St Machar’s Cathedral Sunday 3rd December 2017

Peter Parfitt, Conductor

Emma Kirkby, Soprano

Nicolas Spanos, Alto

Nathan Vale, Tenor

Dawid Kimberg, Bass

Aberdeen Sinfonietta, Leader Bryan Dargie

David Gerrard, Organ Continuo

Alison Macdonald, Cello Continuo

St Machar’s Cathedral was absolutely packed to capacity for Aberdeen Bach Choir’s performance of one of J. S. Bach’s richest and most spectacular works, The Christmas Oratorio. This was not a performance of the complete work which would probably have been too long but we heard Parts 1, 4, 5 and 6 – a generous evening of music in any case. In Bach’s own time the six separate sections of the work were performed on separate days, so Sunday’s selection was just fine. 

Peter Parfitt’s programme notes are always generous, fantastically informative and the current example, beautifully presented was I think his best yet. The descriptions of the various parts of the music in italics contained everything you would ever want to know. I was greatly amused by the introduction in which the words of an official regarding the appointment of Bach as Kantor of the St Thomas School, Leipzig are quoted, “as the best musicians were not available we had no option but to take one of the mediocre ones”. Mediocre! Oh really! Today’s performance of the Christmas Oratorio simply set the seal on the idea that the greatest composer of all time is not Beethoven or Mozart it is without doubt J. S. Bach. Next to the St Matthew Passion, The Christmas Oratorio is pretty nearly unequalled in the annals of all music. The Bach Choir on Sunday was at its very best along with Aberdeen Sinfonietta, its many solo instrumentalists and the four vocal soloists all conducted with fierce energy, precision and above all, joy by Peter Parfitt.

The opening Choruses in each section but especially ‘Jauchset, frohlocket’ with its timpani and trumpets from the very start of the work or ‘Fallt mit Danken’ with its French horns introducing the Fourth Part were absolutely exhilarating. The joyful tumult of choir and orchestra threatened to lift the roof off the Cathedral. I was in musical heaven.

The choir excelled throughout the work, they never tired. The chorales especially the first, sung a cappella were perfectly clean and well balanced. It was the Bach choir at its very best.

As in the St. Matthew Passion, the vocal arias had marvellous backing from instrumental soloists. There was the first bass aria ‘Großer Herr, o starker König,’ sung powerfully by Dawid Kimberg supported by trumpet played by Alan Haggart with Margaret Preston on flute, the tenor aria sung with fabulous clarity by Nathan Vale with violin solos played by Jean Fletcher and Bryan Dargie or Alto Nicholas Spanos whose recitative and aria ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ had two oboes d’amore played by Clara Lafuente Garcia and Fiona Gordon.

Nathan Vale also excelled in his role as Evangelist throughout the work. Many of the recitatives and arias also had marvellous continuo backings from Organist David Gerrard (returning to support the Bach choir after his performance with them in April) and the fabulous cello continuo artist Alison MacDonald – more than once set her music aflame. David Gerrard shone on his own accompanying Dawid Kimberg’s bass aria ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen’.

Soprano Emma Kirkby has a lovely soft sweet voice which came through beautifully in the Echo Aria, ‘Flößt, mein Heiland’ with Rhiannon Morgan as the echo soprano.

There are so many imaginative touches in this work from the well known Chorales to the soloists’ trio or quartet. 

I have touched on only a few gems from this performance which was overall an unending outpouring of glittering musical jewels. Everyone will have gone away remembering their own favourite moment. I have given you just some of mine. Perhaps you could write to the Bach Choir to tell them about yours?

Peter Parfitt dedicated this exceptional concert to the memory of his father David Parfitt (1933 – 2017). From his son’s words printed at the start of the programme he sounds as if he had been a very special gentleman.

Review contributed by Alan Cooper