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Music: Bach Choir, Canticle of the Sun by Amy Beach (Festival Hall)

24 November 2023

Roderic Dunnett marks a Bach Choir innings


ANNIVERSARIES are coming thick and fast. This year, we have had 25 years of David Hill’s tenure as Music Director of the acclaimed Bach Choir, starting with a concert introducing unusual repertoire at the Royal Festival Hall.

It coincides with a glut of celebrations: of Rachmaninov’s 150th (although not of the lamentably ignored Scriabin and Max Reger, both born 1873); and with similar anniversaries impending in 2024 of a Viennese pair, Schoenberg and the inspired, largely ignored Franz Schmidt; plus the 70th birthday of the Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir.

Hill has long been one of the most respected figures in British choral conducting. At Westminster Cathedral, his recordings included a marvellous disc of Praetorius’s Christmas music (Hyperion CDH 55446) and, more recently, Richard Blackford’s oratorio Vision of a Garden (Lyrita SRCD 406).

This South Bank celebration featured Brahms’s German Requiem: a typically arresting — and sensitive — performance, featuring baritone and soprano soloists: “How lovely are thy dwellings” is the best-known movement, but yet more entrancing are the grinding bass solo Herr, lehre doch mich” (“Lord, let me know mine end”), handsomely delivered by Ross Ramgobin, and the touching “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“Now you have sorrow”), for which soprano Claire Rutter reined in her massive virtuoso voice to deliver the aria with marked sensitivity.

Letting the chorus loose, both in “For all flesh is like grass”, and in a double bite (at start and finish) of “Selig sind die toten” (“Blest are the dead who die in the Lord”), Hill’s unceasing mastery was obvious, galvanising both the choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Yet the latter’s fine rendering of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude (Three Choirs Festival, 1899) could not remedy the relative paucity of the work, despite an enthusiastic programme note extolling its virtues.

This concert’s highlight was, without doubt, Canticle of the Sun, by Amy Beach (Arts, 26 May), an American composer now belatedly recognised as of the front rank (the work is already finely recorded by David Hill on Regent REG CD 567). This 11-section masterpiece is a setting of St Francis of Assisi.

The most impressive soloist was arguably the tenor Harry Jacques, who, after just one solo, “Praise be my Lord for our Sister the Moon”, was paired with a superb mezzo-soprano, Katherine Gregory, before the quartet “Praised be . . . the Death of the Body, from whom no man escapeth”.

The other passages are of such beauty (“Our Brother the Wind”, “Our Sister Water”, and the bass’s severe warning “Woe to him who dieth in mortal sin”) that even without Beach’s enticing, skilled, and varied treatment, experiencing the text alone is a marvel. This rare setting proved the undoubted high point of the Bach Choir’s scintillating anniversary celebration.

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