It’s common to hear musicians say that “it all begins with Bach”. For anyone who has studied music at school, this is particularly true, as his chorales are frequently used as a starting point for teaching harmony and composition. This evening’s recital by the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia also began with a Bach chorale, before showing how Bach’s choral style has inspired and influenced great composers who have followed in his footsteps.

Hugh Brunt © Trent McMinn
Hugh Brunt
© Trent McMinn

The programme gave us just a few hints of Bach himself, just to remind us of this harmonic starting point, but allowing the voices of the other composers speak for themselves: there were simple chorale settings framing the first half, and a short motet to close. The opening chorale to Jesu, meine Freude began the concert (although the advertising had implied that we were going to hear the entire motet). Conductor Hugh Brunt showed sensitive attention to the text in both this and In meines Herzens Grunde, and the chorus responded with warm and unfussy singing.

The majority of the programme came from the Romantic German tradition. Felix Mendelssohn did much to bring J.S. Bach back from obscurity and his chorale music, represented here with the motet Richte mich, Gott, often reflects Baroque styles and structure. There was some glorious singing tenors and basses in the opening passage, their power and sense of faith driving the music onwards. We heard more of this in the complexities of Brahms’ motet O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, where there was focussed energy from the basses in the first section, and towards the end, a fugue that burned with an inner fire. The disciplined, tight singing wasn’t a consistent feature of this concert though, and in the unforgiving intimacy of Sage Two, there were some audible weaknesses – sometimes individual voices came through too strongly, there were a few little slips and weak entries and quite often the intonation felt tired.

Anton Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets are the musical equivalent of a pre-Raphaelite painting: all the tools and ideas of the past are clothed in a glow of romantic colour. The chorus created some lovely contrasts in Os Justi and Christus factus est; there was solid, well-blended singing at the climaxes, complemented by prayerful quiet passages in which the low basses shone through. On the whole, though, these motets were delivered with solid and competent singing, but they lacked the magic that I expect, particularly Christus factus est: there’s a soprano entry in this motet that usually sends shivers down my spine, but this time I barely even noticed it.

There were goosebumps though in Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach in which the chorus dispersed in five groups around the hall, singing music taken from Bach’s Komm, süßer Tod, with acoustic effects that were both disconcerting and ethereal as the choir slowly shifted at differing speeds between harmony and dissonance, although again this might have been even more effective if we hadn’t been quite so close to the singers. There were different ethereal effects in the second half with Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Stars in which a simple chorale-like setting of a poem by Sara Teasdale is accompanied by the shimmering effect of resonating wine glasses filled with water to create different pitches.  

The chorus fared much better as they moved away from the rich Romantic repertoire, and one of the most enjoyable pieces of the evening was Judith Weir’s Psalm 148. The opening was fierce and punchy, and was followed by some stirring and expressive singing that drew out all the detail of Weir’s attentive word-setting. Weir adds a solo trombone accompaniment that brought to mind the sackbuts that often accompanied early choral music. Trombonist Nigel Cox had a lovely silky tone that blended well with the choir; I greatly enjoyed the smoothness of his opening fanfare, and the excitement that his fast moving part added to the passage about fire, hail, snow and storms.

Two more Bach pieces framed the second half. For a time, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was more famous than his father, and his motet Gott, deine Güte reicht so weit showed the new direction that music was taking at the time, looking forward towards the clarity of the Classical period. There was some good smooth, flowing singing here, and a better blend than in some of the Romantic repertoire. It was J.S. Bach who really gave the chorus the chance to show off their best singing though in his short motet Lobet den Herrn that closed the concert. There was feather-light soprano singing in the runs, and a warm legato from everyone in the central section and the final “Alleluia” was full of fizz and bounce, showing the chorus at their best.