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Bach – Howells – MacMillan

J. S. Bach Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden;   Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
When David heard
Absolon, My Son (2003)
When David heard
When David heard (1999)
Mass (2001)

Vasari Singers cond Jeremy Backhouse
Fiona Mc Williams – soprano
Julia Field – Alto
Daniel Burges, Thomas Jackson – tenors
Matthew Wood – baritone
Andrew Angus – bass
Jeremy Filsell - organ

St John's , Smith Square – 16 June 2007

The theme of this concert was Devotion – the power of music to touch the heart.   A favourite text for a number settings was Absolon my son.   After classic accounts from Weelkes and Tomkins, contemporary versions by Eric Whitacre and Jonathan Rathbone dealt with the same incidents.   The former featured a tenor solo and exploited tonal contrasts and variations with great effect.   In all these items the choir maintained a high standard of intonation and a virtuoso command of expression.   Two compositions by J S Bach use another biblical text Der geist unser Schwachheit uaf and Psalm 117 Lobet den Herrn.   In spite of the solemnity of the words both were set to lilting melodies;   the first in fact sounds inappropriate for a funeral and may reflect Bach's dislike for the deceased.

Herbert Howells wrote his Requiem after the death of his only son in 1935 – the sense of personal anguish resulted in six movements containing music of a very private nature.   In fact, Howells withheld publication until 1980, feeling that it was too personal a composition to be released.   Some indication of his intentions were summarised by him when he wrote “For text I sought immemorial prose .. two lines from the Latin Requiem Mass .. et lux perpetua luceat eis would govern the work.”   The English texts are taken from the Psalms and Book of Common Prayer, emphasising the power of music to comfort and console, including the familiar verses of The Lord is my shepherd.   

The concert ended with a performance of James MacMillan's Mass , commissioned by Westminster Cathedral for the Millennium celebrations.   The inherent drama of the liturgy is evident in the five parts which are accompanied by MacMillan's characteristically atmospheric writing for organ.   His own religious faith illuminates every moment of this mass which, as ever, provides a very individual response to the ancient Latin texts.   The singers were tested by his long, lyrical lines, but the Vasari group under Jeremy Backhouse emerged triumphant.  

Obviously St John'sdoes not possess the austere grandeur of the Cathedral with its lofty ceilings and sonorous organ.   Also missing was the unmistakeable urgent sound of the boys' choir at Westminster , something unique amongst English cathedrals.   Even so, the performance obviously pleased the composer and the audience.

Stuart Jenkins