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Bringing joy into January

Baroque masterpieces from the Bach Choir – a review by Julia Meredith

As Storm Isha was gathering force in the wings, inside St James all was warmth, light and anticipation.  The Bach Choir, conducted by Alan Gough, had moved their usual pre-Christmas concert into January; and in the bleakest month of the year, nothing could have been more welcome – as evidenced by a wall-to-wall audience.

Pachelbel’s Canon and Jig, the first well known and the second less so ,was played with style and vigour, succeeding in sounding both calming and spritely.  A familiar friend given fresh energy.

After that appetiser, we sat back in anticipation of the banquet of the evening:  Handel’s sumptuous Chandos Anthem, HWV 255, The Lord is my light, with tenor soloist Nick Hurndall Smith and soprano Laura Oxburgh.

This is a work of such engaging beauty, it is seductively easy for the audience to sink into contentment.  And I’m sure Handel had this effect in mind; but there’s an added satisfaction in appreciating the intricacy of the work, and the skill it takes to bring so many moving parts into play.  Alan Gough has been leading a range of orchestras and choirs for several decades now, and his ability to  ‘fine tune’ a performance is legendary.  Singers and musicians trust him implicitly, and seem guided almost invisibly to follow his dynamics.  It gives each movement its unique expression and character.

Tenor Nick Hurndall Smith, who has performed with such stellar groups as The Academy of Ancient Music, the Dunedin Consort and orchestras across Europe, has sung frequently with the Bach Choir.  The warmth of his voice wove fluently through the dancing harmonies of the orchestra, especially in ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield’.  We then heard young soprano Laura Oxburgh give a pure and elastic rendering of the solo ‘It is the Lord that ruleth the sea’ – particularly impressive for a for a non-professional performer with the entire hall to fill.  The final chorale ‘Sing praises unto the Lord’ joined all the parts into an inspiring, pitch-perfect shout of joy, reaching the summit with a fabulous full-throated Amen.

Interval provided the pause for a re-set of style and expectations. Missa Criolla, by the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez, is not the Bach Choir’s usual fare, though it’s apparently been on Alan’s wish list for a while.  It is a fusion of Catholic liturgy and Latin American folksong, which confounds our expectations of sacred music (mine anyway) and stirs the spirit in a way that’s hard to resist. Indeed, it’s hard to stay in your seat.

The muffled drumbeat that first breaks the silence alerts us to this other world of sound.  It is rhythm – complex and contagious – which will drive this music and rouse the emotions, religious and carnal.  Over swelling harmonies from the chorus, Nicholas’s sensual tenor shapes the phrases of the Kyrie, giving them an intimacy which creeps under the skin.

The Gloria is a call-and-response that feels as though the appropriate reaction is a euphoric stomping dance – and yet is stilled by that poignant tenor urging the meaning on to all listeners.

The Credo, that austere statement of belief, came forth throbbing with fervour as the sound of heartfelt sincerity, as opposed to the lofty and ethereal description of faith more familiar in Western church music.

The pressure on all performers to move between styles – rapid switches in pace, pitch, volume – at an instant’s notice, was formidable.  A complacent choir could not have held their footing in this multi-layered, syncopated soundscape… and yet with Alan at the helm (sweating buckets, I’ve no doubt!) it was as passionate, reverent and irresistible as Ramirez could have hoped for.  Real evidence if it were needed, of the Bach Choir’s versatility.

Corelli’s Concerto Grosso can’t really be considered restful, but after all those Latin American fireworks, it soothed and charmed with its opulent perfection. This orchestra comprises many musicians who respond to Alan’s request for particular performances, and it’s a remarkable achievement that so experienced an orchestra can be gathered at (almost!) a moment’s notice – and sound this crisp and comfortable playing together.  Only on Guernsey, as they say.

To close a faultless evening, it had to be Bach.  The Sinfonia from Cantata 174 was adapted from one of the Brandenburgs with the addition of Flugelhorns to give a ‘fatter’ sound. The effect was delightful, intriguing and complex:  their lush sustained notes gleamed through the familiar music like gold thread through velvet, and seemed to make everyone sit up a little higher.

Second offering from Bach was three excerpts from Cantata 208, ‘The Hunt’, which Alan had adapted to include the different voices. This was music to beam radiance over the dark face of the planet, and sent us out into the cold glowing with pleasure.

A last word, with the glory still in our ears.  It is worth remembering that bringing soloists to the Island is an expensive business, even when their accommodation etc is provided by members of the choir.  Sadly, the ticket price doesn’t cover the artists’ costs.  Only through donations and sponsorship can such performances continue. As we heard on Saturday, the musicians eagerly give their all… looking ahead, to give everyone the chance to hear music to this standard, Guernsey’s musical legacy depends on the generosity of people like us.

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