3rd May 2014

The Wiltshire and Glos Standard
Cirencester Choral Society
3rd May 2014 – “Bach & Son”
Review by Charles Woodd



Saturday evening’s concert in Cirencester Parish Church reminded us once again why Cirencester should be very proud of its Choral Society. 151 years young, the society has enjoyed a particularly golden patch in recent years. The packed concerts, the professionally smart presentation, the exciting repertoire and the waiting list to join (except for tenors of course!): these are all good indicators of a thriving, well-run organisation and we should celebrate the superb achievements of those responsible. Those of us who live in the town should also be grateful for the wonderful contribution they make to our cultural landscape.

Last Saturday’s contribution featured the best type of choral music – Bach! There is good reason why choirs across the land have dedicated themselves to his music. It is challenging to sing, but incredibly rewarding because, by turns, it seduces with its lyricism and compels with its energy

The choir’s performance of Jesu, Joy reminded us of Bach’s ability to present the simple beauty of a pastoral theme, whilst the music of the Sinfonia (an arrangement of the more famous violin Partita) provided an additional ‘amuse-gueule’. But I suspect most of us had come to be educated about the father’s rarely performed Ascension Oratorio, and the son’s magnificent Magnificat.

The best Bach always features trumpets and it is a good sign that the Ascension Oratorio opens with a rousing blast. Their importance is such that they can make or break a performance but this performance was a good one. The trumpeters shone, and indeed the whole orchestra – the Corinium Camerata – provided excellent accompaniment for the choir and soloists.

Singing Bach is rewarding, but his most exciting music requires hard-work. The outer

Choruses of the Ascension Oratorio are classic Bach, and as the music bounced between the different voices, the consistent look of intense concentration across the choir demonstrated their commitment. I have previously commented on the ability of this choir to deliver precision singing and to “dance”, and this music again confirmed them as a very well drilled choir. Both through his preparation beforehand and his direction on the evening, their director, Carleton Etherington, helps the choir to appreciate and express the fundamental essence of a piece. This means the audience is always engaged and is able to allow themselves to be carried along the musical journey with confidence. In music of such complexity the key themes must be marked and secure and the choir presented them strongly and clearly. As a result their audience was more than happy to forgive some ‘fluffiness’ in the detail. My one small disappointment about this performance was the use of an English translation. It is rare that these are able to capture the rhythm of the original language and credit should be give to the choir and soloists for triumphing despite this hurdle.

As the son of ‘Bach’, CPE had much to live up to, but in his lifetime he came to be known as “the great Bach”. Towards the end of his life, in 1786, he presented a concert of the great musical achievements of the century. The music included the Credo from his father’s B Minor mass and movements from Handel’s Messiah, but also three of his own pieces including the Magnificat. Although it was a work he completed early in his career it was one of which he was particularly proud and rightly so. The influence of his father is strong, but the nine movements offer a wide range of styles reflecting the evolving classical period. It is quite likely that the work was composed as an audition piece. Certainly the energy and vitality in the composition of the choral movements is impressive. These are “show-off” pieces” and the choir delivered confident, exciting ‘attaca’ entries, highlighting the contrapuntal interplay between the voice parts. The solo movements provide contrast through their simpler lines, but the composer uses them to demonstrate different styles according to the words. I particularly enjoyed the solo work in this piece with Hannah Grove, Ben Sawyer, Nick Drew and James Geidt each enjoying the opportunity provided by their “vignette”.

But CPE (and the choir) had saved the best for last. The Gloria is truly magnificent and as challenging as anything his father ever wrote. It is complex, quick and full of trumpets, but, as with all such music, the secret of success is focussing on the main themes. The result was a glorious swirl of music, securely anchored on the fugal themes, and which generated thunderous applause from a very appreciative audience. This was a tour de force which left the audience (and musicians) buzzing. As my neighbour commented “They were all enjoying it, and that’s the main thing”.

The concert was dedicated to two long-time members of the choir Raymond Fenton and Alastair Macdonald. This was a worthy tribute to them.