Every time I go to hear Birmingham Bach Choir, I have to remind myself that this is, to all intents and purposes, an amateur choir. Quite honestly, the standard of their performances surpasses many professional choirs I’ve heard. Be under no illusion, this is an amateur choir who achieve professional standards, and their last concert, For Those We Loved, was no exception.
Last night’s performance of For Those We Loved was especially poignant for a number of reasons, and many of those present, both in the choir and in the audience, had a personal connection to the music being performed. It was poignant for me too, as it was the first concert I’ve been to since February 2020. Never in the past decades have I gone so long without hearing live music performed. How bereft have I, and so many others, felt without it.
In the beautiful surroundings of Birmingham Cathedral, the concert not only celebrated Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary, but also remembered in particular, the late Pauline Round, past President of the Choir, and a friend and supporter for many years.
The programme opened with Vaughan Williams’ setting of words from Psalm 90, Lord, Thou hast been our refuge, for chorus, organ, SATB soli and trumpet. The blissfully measured opening from the soloists was ably mirrored by the full chorus, the trumpet soloist bringing the piece to a majestic conclusion. This piece requires both careful balance and effective interplay between chorus, organ and soloists. The balance last night was spot on, the audience never needing to strain to hear a particular part, instruments and voices weaving seamlessly out of one another. The baton was ably passed, never once being dropped.
Next on the programme was Vaughan Williams’ setting of Prayer to the Father of Heaven, with words by John Skelton. This piece, new to me, was written in memory of Vaughan Williams’ teacher, Hubert Parry. A perfect match of music and text, executed with sensitivity and precision by the choir.
Holst’s Turn back O man offered an effective interlude between the Vaughan Williams. Incidentally, we sang this at school where it was affectionately referred to as ‘Tobacco man’! It’s a piece whose simple opening belies its complexity in the latter stages. The choir, always supported and encouraged by their superb organist, Martyn Rawles, delivered a convincing and full-bodied performance, reminding those present that this anthem is one which should be better known.
The first half closed with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, with Ed Ballard as an outstanding baritone soloist. Opening with ‘Easter’, soloist and chorus established a union which was to last the entirety of the work. The baritone solos were delivered with such a conviction as I’ve ever seen, the words clear, and the tone enough to melt the heart. This was an outstanding performance, professional on every level, of a work familiar to many. Its conclusion in ‘Let all the world’ simply raised the roof.
The centrepiece of the concert, For Those We Loved, was a commission from the Choir’s conductor, Paul Spicer, Sound the Invisible Trumps, the title taken from the 6th movement, a setting of a text by Walter de la Mare. Overridingly, this was a work written and performed from the heart. The sublime soprano voice of Emily Matthews soared in both the 2nd and 5th moments, ‘Brief is our Life’ and ‘Beside an Altar of Stone’. The work was funded by a legacy from Pauline Round, and it was appropriate and touching that Paul Spicer included two of her own poems, ‘An Ancient Olive’ and ‘Beside and Altar Stone’, both folk-like in quality, and exquisite in both composition and performance. The 4th movement, ‘Life of this World’, a setting of an anonymous 12th century text, translated by Helen Waddell, had echoes of William Mathias, and the final movement, ‘Dance, my Heart’, a setting of words by Kabir, and translated by Tagore, brought the work to an impressive and fitting conclusion. Overall, this is a work which I hope will become part of the wider repertoire because it certainly deserves to. A perfect marriage of music and texts, performed with sensitivity, panache and feeling.
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Following the exuberant ‘Finale’ from Paul Spicer’s Suite for Organ, played with suitable panache by Martyn Rawles, the concert concluded with Parry’s old favourite, Blest Pair of Sirens. If you could bottle the choir’s performance last night, I’d buy it. The pace was spot on, yet there was always space for the beautiful Milton words to shine through. When a work is so familiar, it’s perhaps hard to perform in it in a way which says anything new, but honestly, the music spoke for itself. Nothing new was needed. The spine-tingling climax brought the concert to an memorable finale, the soaring harmonies a poignant reminder that music transcends time and space.
For Those We Loved had everything you could wish for. Outstanding soloists, a first-class organist and a passionate choir, but equally, none of last night would have been possible without their conductor, and also composer, Paul Spicer.
During the interval, whilst queuing for the loo (as you do), I heard an audience member say to one of the choir:
“I’d forgotten the power of the human voice.”
There is little more I can add.
The last two years have robbed us of so much, yet here, coming out the other side, the power of music is undiminished. It has, and will always, remain a constant.
FOR THOSE WE LOVED: A CONCERT TO REMEMBER
Birmingham Cathedral, Saturday 2nd April 2022, 7pm
Ed Ballard baritone
Martyn Rawles organ
Jonathan Sheppard trumpet
Birmingham Bach Choir
Paul Spicer conductor