If I could only use one word to described the singing of the Birmingham Bach Choir, it would be effortless. That’s not to devalue the huge amount of work it takes to pull off a performance such as tonight’s, but rather, the combination of skill, understanding, direction and enjoyment combine to produce a truly effortless feel. Their summer concert, Lux Aeterna, was no exception.
The programme, which spanned over five centuries, was a perfect mix of old and new, each piece approached not just individually, but as part of a flowing performance of music from across the ages. It takes great skill to combine some of the great works of the mighty J.S. Bach, with Gibbons, Britten, MacMillan and Finzi, yet the Birmingham Bach Choir achieved success without reservation.
The programme opened with Gibbons’ crisp anthem ‘O clap your hands’, and it seems hard to believe it was written purely as a doctoral exercise for his Oxford University degree. Since, it has become one of the greats of the Renaissance repertoire. The choir approached this with vitality and security, words crisp and clear, as the music itself dictates.
Next up were to anthems by dear John Joubert. They represented both ends of his career: ‘O Lorde, the maker of al thing’ winning the Novello Anthem Prize in 1952; and ‘This is the gate of the Lord’ being written for the reopening of Birmingham Town Hall in 2007. The choir’s conductor, Paul Spicer, has been a great champion of Joubert’s music, as has the choir itself. Tonight, the choir approached both anthems, demanding as they are, with a feeling of ease. Their attention to detail was particularly noticeable in the first piece which requires all parts to sing at various times, in virtually every area of the dynamic spectrum.
Following the Joubert came Britten’s ‘Te Deum in C’ which I have to confess is, at least to me, not as well-known as it’s ‘Jubilate’ companion. Their soloist, Emily Carew Gibbs was every bit the centrepiece, the choir tackling the ever-complex Britten with character and commitment.
Their organist, Callum Alger, gave a heartfelt performance of Bach’s ‘Kyrie, Gott heilnger Geist’, making the most of what sometimes feels a limited range of options on the organ at St Paul’s. This provided a lovely prelude to the first-half finale, Bach’s motet ‘Lobet den Herrn’. It is always such a joy to hear Bach sung with lightness and precision, and I’m sure he would have approved. It is a reminder that Bach does not automatically have to equal ‘serious’. It is there to be enjoyed, rather than endured.
The second half opened with another Bach motet, ‘Komm, Jesus, komm’ which was, once again, sung with clarity and security. Thence followed two motets by James MacMillan. Both come from Book 2 of his Strathclyde Motets, a series of pieces he considered within the scope of non-professional choirs. Sometimes, this feels a little optimistic, for they are certainly not easy, and like much of MacMillan’s music, best heard live. The first, ‘Lux Aeterna’, was skilfully navigated, as was the second, ‘Benedicimus caeli’, with its haunting refrains.
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Another Bach motet, ‘O Jesu Christ, means Lebens Licht’ followed, before the choir launched into Finzi’s magnificent festal anthem, ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’. Whilst there was a tentative opening on the organ, this was clearly a work the choir enjoyed. Paul Spicer, I’m sure, knows it intimately, and despite it’s twists and turns, it was approached confidently, the soloists blending seamlessly into the choral texture. It’s an anthem I never tire of hearing, yet every performance, of which tonight’s was no exception, brings something to it afresh.
It was sad therefore, that the audience was so small, and more people weren’t present to see and hear such an amazing evening of music. The choir didn’t quite outnumber the audience 2:1, but it wasn’t far off. It’s fair to say they were competing with the CBSO season finale at Symphony Hall, along with a number of other concerts. The rail strike, I’m sure, didn’t help, and despite it’s obvious history and good acoustic, St Paul’s is a little more ‘off the beaten track’ than other venues (in fact, it’s not a venue I’d walk to in the dark, so tend to avoid it other than for concerts on light evenings in the summer).
But, for those of us who were there for Lux Aeterna, it was a real treat. The Choir approached the music professionally, and under the ever-superb and sensitive direction of their conductor, Paul Spicer, the results were outstanding. The soloists, as good as any professionals I’ve heard, were the icing on the cake. The Joubert, Britten and Finzi in particular were fresh and convincing, and the Bach motets full of vitality and clarity. If I could give it more than five stars, I would.
If you’ve missed out on Lux Aeterna, you can hear the same programme at Malvern Priory next Saturday, 2nd July.
LUX AETERNA: A SUMMER CONCERT
St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, Saturday 25th June, 2022, 7pm
Callum Alger organ
Birmingham Bach Choir
Paul Spicer conductor
Future Birmingham Bach Choir concerts:
Saturday 19th November, 7pm, Lichfield Cathedral
Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Sunday 18th December, 3:30pm, St Albans, Birmingham
Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols
Saturday 4th February, 2-6pm, Selly Oak Methodist Church
Come & Sing
Saturday 1st April, 7pm, St Paul’s, Birmingham
Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St John Chrysostom