I've never really hit it off with Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-9). This has been both a disappointment and a surprise as I am a fan not only of choral music, but also of Poulenc. Would it be placing too much hope in the SCO Chorus and the phenomenon of live music to turn this situation around?

SCO Chorus
SCO Chorus

The previously unconsidered elements of live performance turned out to have impressive collective bargaining power: dedicated, distraction-free listening time; the greatly underestimated ability of the eyes to aid the ears; articulate programme notes by Conrad Wilson; the Latin text and an English translation by Hugh Ross. Finally, and most importantly, the sense of occasion and the preparation and performance of the 52-strong SCO Chorus under a youthful and energetic Gregory Batsleer.

This is a challenging work. Melodically there are many difficult intervals. The same is true of the harmony, with one added difficulty: there are many pauses after which the singers have, as it were, to pluck notes from the air. This would be difficult enough if the previous harmony were either simple or stable. However, this is rarely the case. The expressive power in many of the chords lies in their ambiguity. From the point of dynamics, these Lenten motets are volatile and an alert and finely-tuned sense of ensemble is required for this to be convincing. In all these respects the SCO Chorus were extremely impressive and I am grateful to them that this gamble paid off. I have since revisited the piece and will do so again on many further occasions.

Before embarking on a performance of Bach's Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008, David Watkin (Principal Cello, SCO) spoke about its apparently odd placing between two sacred choral works. Central to this was the conviction that Bach felt no distinction between sacred and secular. Evidence for this lies in an inscription which appears on many of his instrumental scores as well as his liturgical works: SDG – Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone). The reverential quality of the music – and the playing – was most keenly felt in the Sarabande, which exuded a "dark night of the soul" quality. The vulnerability in this movement seemed heightened in those moments where the bow, having swept across a chord, remains on the highest note alone. Like the Poulenc, passion and angularity seemed inseparable. However, Bach's expression of faith through music was not restricted to the solemnly devotional and the more fleet-of-foot dances in this performance exuded optimism and joy.

The stark visual contrast between a stage brimming with choristers and a solo cello was balanced in the final item, when chamber organist Stuart Hope joined David Watkin to provide continuo for the returning chorus. The closing item, Bach's 1723 motet Jesu meine Freude ("Jesus, My Joy"), BWV 227, was hugely confident in its opening, which expresses joy in a descending minor scale. There was also lovely delicacy and impressive balance as a widespread quartet of impressive soloists gently expressed disinterest in material concerns. By far the biggest surprise and most touching delight was the tempo of the haunting "Gute Nacht, o Wesen". This seemed to be taken at around 75% of the tempo of most recordings I know. I have loved this passage for many years and yet, strangely, have never really considered the words, which bid goodnight to reality, sin, haughtiness, splendour and iniquity. It would be possible to imagine sleep following this rendering, were it not for the aching beauty of the harmony, forbidding any kind of drifting. This tardy uniting of text and music could be regarded as another victory for live performance. I thoroughly enjoyed this concert and, prosaic as it may seem, the format without interval, which seems to suit a spring afternoon perfectly.