His special gift to us this fine June afternoon was to introduce two composers from Holland, neither well known to many in the UK – Frank Martin, (b. Geneva, 1939) and Daan Manneke, whose Psalmes 121 and 122 began this exquisite programme.

Though the two psalms would seem to follow in sequence, they were written 40 years apart. RBC treated both with that wonderful clarity, balance and distinctness which distinguishes the really first class choir. The difference between the two settings was reminiscent of painters who progress by worrying less about detail and concentrate on the main artistic message of their work.

Though Swiss born, Martin was a celebrated composer, conductor and pianist who spent much of his time in the Netherlands. JanJoost led Reading Bach Choir in a truly gripping performance of his Mass, a work that is rooted in the 12-tone scale but reverberating throughout with the immense and beneficent influence of J.S. Bach.

This stood out particularly as the conductor ushered in the tiers of counterpoint in the bustling Gloria. RBC’s dynamics are likewise superb and if you find imagining colours and landscape helpful in listening to music, the sopranos in the Kyrie conjure up a bright blue merging into the broad landscape of the basses and tenors, lit by sun shining through dark clouds.

The rhythm of the Sanctus was also particularly striking, swinging back and forth like a giant censer. JanJoost himself spoke evocatively of mottles of light, precisely the effect produced by the June afternoon on the cream stone of Douai. (A fine recording of Martin’s choral work by Westminster Cathedral choir is on the Hyperion label, though a CD of this choir’s wonderful sound is well overdue).

This leaves only a little time to talk about the rest of their performance. Everything in the first part was sung in French – a most arresting contrast with the English of Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia – followed by a rich interpretation of Britten’s music written for radio and based on the text of an extraordinary Auden poem.

Herbert Howell’s Requiem brought the concert full circle with a return to Psalm 121, and we closed in silence with the work of another contemporary Dutch master, Albert de Klerk – Pater Noster.

A gathering would be a good description of the afternoon, The more enterprising brought an impromptu picnic to add a certain lightheartedness to what was a performance of intense and moving spirituality.

Patrick Cogswell

Newbury Weekly News Thursday 12th June 2009

Reproduced with kind permission of Newbury Weekly News.