MUSIC IN St. MACHAR’S: FESTIVAL OF SACRED MUSIC 2012

ALAN COOPER
Sunday, 07 October 2012

The last of five concerts making up this year’s Festival of Sacred Music in St. Machar’s Cathedral set the seal indelibly on what must rank musically as the best yet. Sospiro Baroque directed by Roderick Bryce specialise in the instrumental and vocal repertoire of the Baroque period. They are based in Edinburgh. This was the third group in this year’s Festival that was new to me and I have to say that I was totally blown away by what was a sensational world class performance.

It was not just the performance either. Every one of the pieces of music by J. S. Bach and his predecessors or contemporaries was stunningly well crafted and full of ideas guaranteed to captivate and delight.

Sospiro Baroque opened their performance with Buxtehude’s Der Herr ist mit mir BuxWV 15. The eight voice choir was ideally well balanced. Not only did the four parts blend beautifully, the vocal pairs merged perfectly together so that the sound had no jagged edges. In this piece they were supported by two violins, cello, bass and organ. Perhaps it was the scoring for the duetting violins that suggested the influence of Monteverdi but it was also the lightness and radiance of the sound that made this performance so special.

Buxtehude was followed by a purely instrumental work by Bach’s contemporary Telemann. Just three instruments were used for the Oboe Sonata in a minor. Julian Appleyard’s soaring flights of fancy on oboe were supported by hearty playing from Sheelagh Fuller on cello and Philip Sawyer on organ. Their superbly elegant playing of these delightful dance movements easily filled the Cathedral.

Both of the Bach Cantatas in the programme are early works yet both are gifted with imaginative instrumental and vocal delights. The first, Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 added violas and bassoon to the instrumental forces and each of the seven sections ending in a Hallelujah was scored with different voice combinations coloured by wonderfully apposite instrumental backings: soprano and alto with cello and organ or tenor with duetting violins and continuo for instance. Here Bach’s imagination which was to reach its ultimate fulfilment in the St. Matthew Passion is already in evidence. Before the second of the Bach Cantatas brought the concert to a spectacular conclusion, Pachelbel’s Was Gott tut, das ist Wohlgetan with its joyful almost carol-like melody and fine bass solo and then Buxtehude’s Jesu meines Lebens Leben BuxWV 62 with its imaginative chaconne setting adding an extra dimension of life to the text balanced the superb quality of the music in the first half of the concert with more of the same.

The second Bach Cantata, Aus der Tiefe rufe ich BWV131 featured two matching sections, the first for baritone and soprano, the second for tenor and mezzo in which the male voices followed a decorative melodic line while soprano or alto sang the chorale melody Herr Jesu Christ in long slow notes. Most other composers would have done this the other way round but the result from the soloists of Sospiro Baroque was totally seductive. The replacement of one of the two violins by oboe gave the instrumental scoring an extra dimension and this was the work that brought the concert and indeed the Festival to its spectacular conclusion.