Many will have eagerly anticipated the return of Stephen Layton to Auckland after his thrilling St John Passion two years ago as he once again took the helm of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and University of Auckland Chamber Choir in the music of Bach, this time juxtaposing the great German master with the music of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

The concert opened with high spirits as Layton and soprano Sara Macliver superbly captured the exuberance of Bach’s joyous Cantata no. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. The opening and final movements are replete with duelling coloratura phrases between soprano and trumpet to which Macliver responded with magnificent virtuosity. Even at Layton's rapid tempi, this music held no terrors for Macliver (only the ascents to high C sounding a little uncomfortable) and she managed to sound consistently joyful even while conquering the coloratura challenges. Trumpeter Huw Dann was an able duet partner for Macliver, revelling in the virtuoso opportunities of the part though occasionally threatening to overwhelm the soprano's lower register. The slower central movements were simply gorgeous, Macliver lavishing glowing tone on Bach's languorous phrases and offering tasteful ornamentation in the repeats. She truly captured the spiritual introspection required of the middle aria "Höchster, mache deine Gute." Two violins accompanied the chorale in impressive fashion, the orchestra proving an able accompanying force overall.

It was quite a shift of mood to the following Berliner Messe. Pärt's work both starts and ends slowly and quietly, travelling from the intimate Kyrie and the more extroverted Gloria and Veni Sancte Spiritus before returning to the stillness of the concluding Agnus Dei. Nevertheless, the variation of mood felt too little for a half-hour long piece and Pärt's writing in this piece comes across more as simply pretty rather than truly memorable. Singing with exactitude and welcome clarity, the University of Auckland Chamber Choir was even more impressive here than on previous occasions. It clearly luxuriated in Pärt’s harmonies and the orchestral strings too responded with commitment. Reservations about the piece aside, we were informed that Pärt was listening via radio from his home in Estonia and he could hardly have wished for a better performance than this. Written some 30 years earlier, the Collage sur B-A-C-H is a much different proposition. Repeated iterations of a Bach sarabande are sandwiched between sharp, dissonant chordal figures to which the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra brought their gutsiest playing and exact articulation. In the sarabande interludes, the soulful oboe solo from Bede Hanley was shaped with achingly beautiful simplicity.

Last up was Bach's Magnificat, Layton’s speeds once again fleet and rhythmically alert throughout, with a particularly bouncy and energetic opening choral movement. He supplied a consistently logical sense of direction in a work that can easily seem like a succession of exquisite miniatures and never shied away from drama in the choral movements (truly gripping in the Omnis gentes, for example) though a couple of the quicker movements exhibited slightly disconcerting accelerandi. While the sopranos weren't always consistent in intonation, the choir showed why it should probably be considered the best in Auckland, dealing well with the quick passagework of Fecit potentiam and providing mesmeric timbres in the harmonically crunchy cadential points. Macliver returned as Soprano I and proved to be the outstanding soloist, making the most of her brief aria and supplying the trio with a soaring top line. The other four singers acquitted themselves well if without the same refulgence of tone. Taryn Fiebig's voice lacked warmth but was lively of spirit in Et exultavit. Alto Helen Charlston sang expressively in Esurientes but was not always audible over the orchestra and her tenor partner in the Et misericordia duet. There and in his arduous aria Deposuit potentes, tenor Andrew Goodwin showed off fine passagework and a surprising ring to the tone and bass Christopher Richardson had a pleasingly warm timbre for his aria.

Bach's orchestral writing gives individual players plentiful chances to shine and the wind in particular rose splendidly to the occasion. A pair of gleaming accompanying flutes threatened to take attention from Charlston in her aria and a heartrending oboe solo interacted matched Macliver's intensity in hers. Overall, the Auckland Philharmonia showed true versatility in this concert, moving seamlessly from the historically informed styling of Layton's conception of Bach to the acerbic atmosphere of Pärt's collage and the simple serenity of the same composer's Berliner Messe. But it was the Bach pieces that were the undoubted highlights, particularly the radiant contribution of Sara Macliver.