Passiontide, Douai Abbey, 8th April 2017
“you made an absolutely glorious sound!”
Newbury Weekly News
To witness Reading Bach Choir on Saturday evening in Douai Abbey tackling three challenging Passiontide pieces from France and Germany, one could be forgiven for thinking that European solidarity was intact! This was the second of their three 50th anniversary concerts, which started with an impressive B minor Mass in their home town in February, and will finish there on July 8th with a wide-ranging programme including Britten, Brahms, Schönberg and Thomas Tallis’ forty-part motet Spem in alium. Many of us associate Holy Week observance with an obligatory Bach Passion, it was therefore refreshing to be offered an enterprising programme of seasonal music by Poulenc, Distler, and Schütz.
After a period of study in Venice, where he completely assimilated the local style, Schütz returned to Dresden bearing Mediterranean sunshine and volatility. Under the secure guidance of their soon to be ex-director Matthew Hamilton, the choir started with five motets from his Cantionies Sacrae of 1625 on texts derived from St.Augustine, all delivered with crisp focus, some deftly handled word-painting, and remarkable clarity of line for such a large group. In complete contrast, Poulenc’s highly catholic Quatre Motets pour un Temps de Pénitence are an altogether much more complex affair, with changing disposition of the choir parts, constantly alternating time signatures, and an enormous variety of expression ranging from the douceur of resignation to much more overt displays. Hamilton lead his singers though this demanding score with unassailable aplomb. His will be difficult shoes to fill.
After the interval it was back to the protestant world for Hugo Distler’s Choralpassion, whose highly eclectic style has elements of medieval melisma and organum, solid Lutheran counterpoint, and choruses which are almost “Bauhaus” in their graphic representation of events, all this with Schütz and Bach looking over his shoulder. Distler had joined the Nazi party (who found his music “degenerate”) to be able to work but, fearing that he could be called up to fight, and with the world he knew collapsing around him, he took his own life in 1942. The sweet-toned evangelist Tim Hawken delivered the unaccompanied gospel narrative of the Passion in perfectly idiomatic German and, as in Bach, Jesus’ utterances are given by a bass soloist, here a rich-voiced Robert O’Connell. The minor but important roles of Judas, Pilate, false witnesses, high priests and criminals were taken by members of the choir. This was a thoroughly educative and enriching evening. Thanks be to all concerned for this introduction to a meditative yet highly charged take on the familiar text.
© Charles Medlam 2017
JS Bach Mass in B Minor – 50th celebration concert on 11th February 2017
“A really wonderful concert – bravo!”
“Thrilling, noble, moving, uplifting”
“It was an absolute joy to be in the hall to hear it..a fabulous performance”
“Thank you so much. I want to express my appreciation of all the concentration and intensity that went into the performance”.
THE Reading Bach Choir celebrated its 50th anniversary in grand style.
The performance of Bach’s magnificent Mass in B minor was a repeat of the choir’s very first concert in Reading town hall on January 25, 1967.
The concert hall this time around was virtually sold out, the large audience, which included past musical directors of the choir, attracted by both the commemorative event and the renowned reputation of Reading’s finest polyphonic choir.
The Mass in B minor, a pinnacle of the choral repertoire, comprises a compilation of movements written over a span of several years. Bach, a Lutheran, extended his initial Kyrie and Gloria from 1733 with the addition of the Catholic Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei composed during the late 1740s, finally completing the whole work a year before his death.
The music is varied with no set formula in structure, style or orchestration. This only served to highlight the technical and musical accomplishments of both the choir and the Orchestra Con Amici Barocco under the direction of conductor, Matthew Hamilton.
From the beginning we heard a fine balance of voices and period instruments working together as the elegant long lines of the Kyrie gently unfolded, with conductor Hamilton masterfully gauging the dynamics to give us a glimpse of the mystery and drama which was to come.
The gentle duet in the following Christe eleison provided a light contrast and was sweetly delivered by soprano Susanna Hurrell and the mellifluous mezzo, Ciara Hendrick.
From then on the movements loosely alternated between light and shade. In the Gloria the trumpets and timpani captured the bright mood whilst the textural clarity in the chorus was well-supported by the orchestra’s springy dance rhythms.
At several points the interweaving worlds of voices and instruments were enhanced as key players in the orchestra stood up to play their corresponding passages with the soloists.
Thus, we heard the orchestra’s leader Amanda Babington’s virtuosic playing with Susanna Hurrell’s florid vocal lines in a splendid rendition of the intricate duet from the Laudamus te. Also notable was Rachel Helliwell’s beautiful flute playing in the Dominus deus and again in the Benedictus where she was a fine match for tenor Thomas Hobbs’s expressive interpretation.
Reading Bach Choir captured the mood and atmosphere of each section perfectly. In Gratias agimus tibi we heard true solemnity in the opening sustained phrases. Cum sancto spiritu was delivered with great energy and the Osana displayed the dexterity of a choir who can master the most challenging repertoire, while the final Dona Nobis was choral singing at its very best.
Newbury Weekly News
On Saturday evening after almost exactly fifty years, Reading Bach Choir returned to the same venue with the same work as for their debut in January 1967 (tickets from six to fifteen shillings!). They continue their celebrations with a Passiontide programme in Douai on April 8th, and a varied a cappella programme in the Minster on July 8th. The choir has been a regular fixture of the region’s musical life and has so far tackled 223 different composers in local venues as well as places like Ghent, Riga and Düsseldorf. Their inspirational young director Matthew Hamilton, the sixth to date, has led them since 2010, but will be leaving soon due to his many other commitments. There was a real buzz in Reading Town Hall as a nearly full house gathered to hear Bach’s great B minor Mass.
The choir was accompanied by the period instrument Orchestra Con Amici Barocco led by Amanda Babington, from whose ranks emerged the fine soloists necessary for the violin, flute, horn, bassoon and oboe obligatos. Mezzo Ciara Hendrick, tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Edward Grint were totally at ease in the world of 18th century performance practice, while soprano Susanna Hurrell was at times perhaps a shade too operatic for the circumstances. There were thrilling climaxes in the Credo, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments in the Gratias agimus and Qui tollis, as well as passages of profound mystical enquiry in the Incarnatus and Sepultus est, whose aching dissonances underpin the very essence of the Christian story. The B minor mass is a big long sing for any choir. Hamilton treats his singers like professionals and his lack of compromise was entirely vindicated by some spectacularly buoyant coloratura in the choruses, and beautifully sustained lines in the slower pieces.
Congratulations, Happy Birthday, and all good wishes for the next fifty years!
Pining for the Fyords. St Laurence Church Reading. 9th July 2016
The audience included members of a number of other local choirs. All of them I spoke to were impressed by the music and the musicianship. My friend and his wife (who is Swedish) complimented us on our language skills.
….said it was quite the best choral concert they have been to for its variety and combination of modernity and so much lovely melody. They said the singing was amazing …
“The contrasts in dynamics were inspiring and I loved the gorgeous bass sound. The Mäntyjärvi was the best for me, leaving me close to tears”.
“Although I wish I could have been singing with you all, I really enjoyed being a member of the audience for this wonderful and inspirational concert. I thought the Mäntyjärvi, in particular, was exquisite”.
Chains of Gold. Douai Abbey. 4th July 2015
Audience comment on the Tallis Spem in Alium:-
It was an exquisite pleasure. I shut my eyes and was transported on a warm bath of sound which took me up, brought me down gently and then took me further up. It was a thing of beauty and I’m so glad I was there. I don’t have a god, but if I did it was in the abbey tonight.
My father (who, by his own admission, is no expert on classical music) was going to stand and applause after the first rendition of Spem, and then wanted to do that even more so after we sang it in the round – but felt a bit self conscious in doing so.
Another friend of mine (first time RBC concert goers) said that during the final rendition of Spem, tears just started falling from her eyes, she was so moved.
Even my other half, who really prefers Madonna to Tallis, said that Spem was amazing.
On the concert as a whole, a response from first-time RBC audience members — they were amazed an amateur choir could sing to such a high standard!
Messiah by GF Handel. Greyfriars Church, Reading. 13th December 2014
“It was worth driving for over an hour on a cold winter’s night to hear RBC’s sublime performance of Handel’s Messiah yesterday evening. I can’t think of another occasion when I’ve been entertained by a choir with such an incredibly homogenous and perfectly-pitched delivery. Mixing SATB together (in terms of where everyone is positioned) is tricky, unless the choir are rock-solid in their knowledge of the piece – which this choir clearly is. The soloists were excellent (particularly the tenor and soprano) as was the orchestra, but RBC are outstanding and deserve to be in the limelight on this occasion at least. Thank you, Christmas has officially started!”
“The Bach Choir gave such a wonderfully spirited performance last night. I hope you all left the hall with a zing in your hearts. We really enjoyed it.”
“What an astonishing evening. Wow. We feel elated. Thank you and felicitations!”
Whitley Arts Festival 24th October 2014. (See the photos via the media menu)
jelly, Reading UK @thejellyReading Oct 24
Thank you @ReadingBach for introducing me to something new and very beautiful. Wonderful evening @whitleyfest
Gabriel Jackson @gjackson3 Oct 24 London
Great vibes & great new audience at @ReadingBach choir’s @whitleyfest concert tonight.
Fiona Talkington @fionatalkington Oct 24
Gabriel Jackson intros his piece with @ReadingBach choir- ‘a real Reading vibe’ @whitleyfest #rdguk
Fiona Talkington @fionatalkington Oct 24
Gorgeous Knut Nystedt harmonies with @ReadingBach choir surrounding audience @whitleyfest #rdguk #Constellation
WhitleyArtsFestival @whitleyfest Oct 25
@gjackson3 lovely new work. proud to have it at the festival thank you. well done @ReadingBach
Ave Gloriosa Mater, St. James’ Church, Reading, 5th July 2014.
Marion Livingstone. Reading Councillor – The concert was very enjoyable indeed. Thank you so much for inviting me. The Jackson piece was wonderful and everything that I hoped it would be. I look forward to the day when it can be performed in the (Abbey) ruins once we have secured the lottery funding to preserve and stabilise them.
XNMedia – Go to http://www.xnmedia.co.uk/index.php/news/reading/item/1585-review-ave-gloriosa-mater-by-reading-bach-choir
A member of the audience – From the start the sound was really beautiful, entrancing, and I was carried away listening to it. Well done, this was a hard programme and you pulled it off utterly convincingly!!!
An ex-choir member – The new commission was super! Really innovative and dynamic, with some wonderfully ethereal moments. What a great way to put Reading on the musical map. Congratulations for all those months of planning and preparation. I’m sorry I missed being part of it
Spiritual Spaces, Douai Abbey, 8th February 2014. Henley Standard
I went to this concert expecting, as the title Spiritual Spaces suggested, some calming, serene singing. But I was wrong.
There was certainly some very calming serene singing — but there was also the sound of a very good choir, under the direction of Matthew Hamilton, pushing the boundaries and giving the audience some modern choral music. If live music is to survive, performers need to experiment and change otherwise it all becomes stale.
The selection had been carefully thought out and there were also organ solos performed by Nicholas Shaw to complement the singing and that was also a contrast.Perhaps the best example of this was Immortal Bach by Knut Nystedt, based on a Bach chorale but spread out into five concurrent choruses sung independently of each other.
Sounds a recipe for possible disaster and certainly discords, but the beauty of this piece was the resolution in the final chords and back into the original Bach chorale. The choristers moved around the body of the abbey and thus provided the audience with an original “surroundsound”. They also performed Friede auf Erden by Arnold Schönberg, an interesting choice as it was one of the last pieces he composed before moving away from the classical European style.
Listening to modern music can be more difficult than traditional European music and requires concentration but is ultimately rewarding. The clever choice on Saturday allowed the audience to relate to the changes that had been made in composition and start to appreciate newer elements of this music.
It was a brilliant experience and I look forward to other ground-breaking concerts from this superb choir.
Newbury Weekly News
I found this concert both incredibly rewarding in terms of the sheer skill and professionalism of the musicians involved but also the intellectual stimulation of such a carefully chosen programme. The choir produced a consistently beautiful sound and all voice parts shone despite the considerable challenges posed by some of the repertoire. Matthew Hamilton is clearly a formidably talented young conductor and he curated one of the most satisfying and exciting concerts that I have attended in a long time.
Americana 16th November 2013 at Reading Minster – audience responses
The tone was consistently good in all sections, there was a real warmth in the singing as well as technical accomplishment and a real togetherness.
Sacred and Profane 4th May 2013 at Reading Minster – audience responses
The opening Vaughan Williams piece was beautiful. “Our concerts keep getting better.”
St. John Passion by J.S. Bach 16th February 2013 at Douai Abbey – audience responses
The diction was clear and the balance of parts just right. Ruht Wohl was sublime!
The whole performance oozed sensitivity
“A magical evening”
The dynamics and emotion were striking, diction clear, and the ending was just fabulous…….the evangelist was wonderful, as was the continuo playing. Congratulations to everyone !”
And an audience review –
The concert was excellent. I thought the balance of the voices was superb. There was lots of soft and loud, dark and light shade and real, beautifully phrased expression. The chorales were sung with sensitivity and were seamlessly integrated into the narratives and the arias.
I think the star of the evening was Thomas Hobbs – wow what a performance! So assured and polished. It is a huge work for the tenor and he carried it with professional ease. I actually felt as if he was telling ME the story, forget about the rest of the audience. Katie Bray was very polished and sang beautifully: such a lovely rich tone to her voice. Her aria “Es ist volbracht” was so touching – we could hear every word. Simon Lasker Wallfisch was excellent – very assured.
As for the choir – I thought there was a good blend, no one in the choir stood out, there were no prima donnas letting the audience know that they were singing. I am biased but I thought the contraltos were excellent – their words were particularly clearly defined. The entries in the main were good.
And Matthew – how could you fail to sing for this man. I have always enjoyed his conducting. He seems to be able to adjust his technique to suit the occasion. Saturday he was there, but we the audience did not know he was there. Nothing flashy, he just got on with it and made sure it worked. The way he extracts emotion out of the singing is wonderful.
Sirens’Songs 24th November 2012 – Henley Standard (Lesley Potter)
MUSICAL director Matthew Hamilton is young, full of energy and passionate about music. With his mop of dark hair and trendy glasses he is surely going to be the next Gareth Malone — only more erudite.
He chose for this concert of secular choral music a selection of Siren Songs. Many of them were poems about mermaids or drowning lovers set to modal, impressionistic music by composers such as Debussy and Ravel. But he had also included songs by three female composers, all of whom he expressed great admiration for during his short explanatory speeches.
We heard Les Sirènes and Hymne au Soleil by French composer Lili Boulanger, who died in 1918 at the age of 24, leaving a small body of work which Hamilton praised for its power, individuality and distinctive voice. We also heard Sirens’ Song by British-born Elizabeth Maconchy, who studied with Vaughan Williams, and whom Hamilton described as “one of the best composers of the 20th century, full stop.”
It is refreshing to come across a musical director so keen to give air space to female composers. But this concert was far more than a showcase for undervalued but brilliant writing.
Hamilton teased some celestial singing from this choir. The attention to detail, the punctuated staccatos and the dramatic dynamics showed how hard the 50 or so singers had worked on this varied and complex repertoire. Pianist Nicholas Shaw played with great sensitivity, but it was the a cappella numbers that really stole the show. At times the music was so eerie that you were momentarily transported to that strange place, somewhere between dream and reality, that truly accomplished choral music can take you to.
Immortal Bach at Douai Abbey, Saturday 21st April 2012 – Newbury Weekly News
When attending a concert one pays for a package – of music, performance and performers, setting, overall ambience and many other things. For example, how was the welcome at the door, was the ticket price acceptable, was the programme satisfying, were the acoustics supportive, was the feeling at the end one of being fulfilled etc. It is not simply a matter of turning up and listening to an evening’s music making.
Reading Bach Choir, under their competent conductor Matthew Hamilton scored highly on their complete package – an enterprising and well planned programme performed to a high standard managed by friendly, helpful staff in the sublime acoustic and ambience of Douai Abbey.
J.S.Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, Komm’ was performed with length of melodic line and beautifully shaped phrase endings. The tempo was easy but always progressing forward but without being driven. The different sections were tidily negotiated and the overall choral sound was generally warm and well balanced with a bright soprano line.
Brahms’ motet ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen’ began, like the Bach, with precise ensemble and very good intonation particularly in the difficult passages of chromatic, fugal entries. The overall structure of the whole piece was well controlled by the conductor. The dissonances well highlighted but never forced and the firm low bass line provided security for the choir and audience alike.
‘Immortal Bach’ by the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt was a mathematically calculated reconstruction of Bach’s chorale ‘Komm, Susser Tod’. The chorale was heard first as Bach wrote it and then the choir divided into five choirs, the first choir holding each chord for four beats, the second choir holding each chord for six beats , the third choir for eight beats an so on. Sung in a single-line horseshoe formation around the Abbey this was a hauntingly beautiful, prayerful composition enhanced by the Abbey’s reverent acoustic. An experiment in melting dissonance into resolution the effect was like the sound of deep bells brimming over with overtones.
The first half of the programme ended with a short motet, probably by J S Bach, ’Ich lasse dich nicht’. Like ‘Komm Jesu Komm’ it is for double choir with much echoing of one choir to another. Here, the balance of choral forces took a few minutes to settle but this was only momentary.
Claire Babington, cello, who along with Tom Penrose (organ) had provided excellently subtle continuo for the Bach items, next played the Cello Suite no 2 in D minor. The length of this item rather upset the otherwise beautifully balanced choral programme, but provided a single – line simplicity in a concert of otherwise choral harmonic richness.
The evening ended with Sven-David Sandstrom’s setting of Bach’s text of Komm, Jesu, Komm’. The choir rose to the challenge of this difficult work with its’ antiphonal effects and blurred overlapping of chords. The piece contains many different styles and a huge dynamic range including very big crescendi – all well accomplished by the choir. Although not long, this is a large-scale piece in its concept and vision.
The Reading Bach Choir is a choir with real ability and potential. This was a most satisfying evening.
Julia M Rowntree
Immortal Bach – Douai Abbey, 21st April 2012 – Henley Standard
Douai Abbey has proved yet again to be one of the most superb venues in this area by hosting another concert from the Reading Bach Choir, entitled Immortal Bach on Saturday, 21st April.
The concept of performing Bach’s and Bach-inspired choral works showed to be a great combination of ‘old’ and ‘new’ and was a truly inspirational evening of music.
From the imitation passages of the opening JS Bach’s motet for double choir Komm, Jesu, komm (Come, Jesus, come), via Ich lasse dich nicht (I will not let You go) in the second half. Then on to the dynamic gradation and contrast of a motet by Brahms on the repeated and rather haunting ‘Why?’ (Warum? in the original German) and the metaphysical questioning of life and God from the book of Job,
We were treated to one of the most effective uses of the Douai Abbey’s wonderful acoustics at the end of the first half. Standing in a semicircle around the audience, the choir performed Immortal Bach, based on a Bach chorale, written by a contemporary Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. What could have been just a clever and rather cerebral mathematical exercise in experimental music-writing produced a higher vocal and spiritual dimension beyond that moment in space and time. The choir’s conductor, Matthew Hamilton, got the perfect balance and full involvement of every one of his singers. Singing as with one voice whilst producing outstanding musical harmony and beautiful sound.
The closing piece of the concert was Komm, Jesu, komm, a ‘rework’ of the opening Bach motet by the Swedish composer Sven-David Sandstrom. It’s probably wrong to compare but it never did live up to the extraordinary acoustic atmospherics of Nystedt’s Immortal Bach. A richer bass foundation of the intensely dissonant harmonic language would have possibly made the sound appear more grounded. It could have also probably been helpful to have had the female voices more focussed in tone especially in the middle and lower register.
JS Bach’s solo Cello Suite in D minor was an excellent idea as a ‘breather’ and a potentially very effective contrast to the big choral sound. There were a number of passages of profound beauty of tone and highly accomplished playing. Somehow, though, last Saturday’s rendition never managed to quite take off due to a few problematic moments of intonation.
Overall though, the concert was yet another treat in the wonderful setting of Douai Abbey – THANK YOU, Reading Bach Choir and Matthew Hamilton.