Last Saturday’s concert must surely rank among the most memorable in the Birmingham Bach Choir’s distinguished history.
Marking the birthdays of Purcell (1659) and James MacMillan (1959) it celebrated both the old and the new, and it was in fact the modern work, far removed from what we perceive as the choir’s traditional repertoire, which had the far more resounding success in performance.
Three Purcell anthems Rejoice in the Lord Always, My Beloved Spake and My Heart is Inditing were rather mixed in delivery, with solo groups puny at times in projection and timbre, but with crisp, thrilling diction from the sonorous full chorus.
Paul Spicer’s choristers responded well to the huge halo imparted by the Oratory’s acoustic, as did the dance-like delivery of the Orchestra of the Swan, light yet full-throated, totally attuned to these theatrically-based works, and persuasively eloquent in the famous Chacony.
And their resourceful string-playing made a huge contribution to the impact of James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, a score of the utmost commitment which gratefully assimilates influences from such as Tippett, Honegger and Penderecki into a tapestry of total conviction and integrity.
The range of choral registers is huge in its exploration of extremities, from growly, visceral basses to otherworldly sopranos looking down on the scene. In fact the score is disturbingly graphic, as in the arid textures of “I thirst”, and demands a sustained intensity which Spicer encouraged with a moving submission to the power of its message, and well-judged silences.
Overlapping layers of choral activity which had emerged in the last of the Purcell offerings were here crucial elements of this reading, and the message of the texts was delivered with awesome finality.