Working well if underpowered

BACH TO BOWMAN

Melbourne Bach Choir

St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton

Saturday May 22

Conductor/founder Rick Prakhoff directed an underpowered collection of his Bach Choir on Saturday in a program that had to be altered, apparently due to the number of choristers who were out sick. In essence, the change was a simple swap: we didn’t hear Bruckner’s Ecce sacerdos motet but were treated to organist Calvin Bowman’s reading of the Bach chorale-prelude Ich ruf zu dir. And that’s an experience worth the price of entry, coupled as it was with Bowman’s earlier airing of more Bach in the Christ ist erstanden chorale-prelude. Not that we lacked Bruckner completely: the choir worked through the composer’s Locus iste, Christus factus est and Ave Maria for openers, and a brass trio gave us the Aequale No. 1 later in the night.

For the rest, we were offered more trombone work in the three Beethoven Aequale WoO 30, the Geistliches Lied by Brahms for choir and organ, Bach’s three-verse setting of Christ ist erstanden by way of prelude to Bowman’s chorale-prelude account, and three Bowman works, all of them sacred settings: Regina caeli, Ave Maria and a large-scale Pater noster for almost the same forces as the relegated Bruckner Ecce sacerdos, which, I assume, it was meant to complement.

A varied entertainment, with 11 segments, played/sung to what looked like a full church with a splendid organ, although one in need of repairs, it seems; Bowman has recently been appointed music director of St. Andrew’s Brighton and his craft will be put to work regularly on this refurbished instrument if/when the money is raised.

The choristers began by easing themselves into the night, the Locus iste gaining some interest at the chromatic slides at the irreprehensible est passage at bar 22. This apart, the motet is plain-speaking, in this reading keeping to a narrow path with not much give-and-take in the metre until a ritardando from bar 44 to the end. In the following Christus factus est, Prakhoff took an amiable pace for his Moderato, misterioso and it suited his forces, although range was another matter; I couldn’t hear the low F at bar 15 when the basses introduced the word crucis into the mix. For the most part, the texture proved smoothly fluent, although the tenors sounded constrained at their quod est entry in bar 44. I know it’s hard to differentiate, but the pp entries starting at bar 65 were pretty much the same level as at the triple piano called for in my edition beginning at bar 71. Also four-square in outline was the Ave Maria in which altos, tenors and basses are split in two, but the climactic gathering of the clans at the Jesus of bars 19-20 would have benefitted from some less eager altos. Nevertheless, despite is seven lines, this work is pretty plain sailing for a choir as competent as this one.

For the Bach chorale, Prakhoff reinforced his singers with trombones to produce a firm, cogent mass of timbres, most moving at each repetition of Kyrieleis where each verse comes to a quietly jubilant conclusion. Bowman’s reading of the Orgelbuchlein‘s chorale-prelude impressed for its fluidity, especially its realization of the inbuilt bounce of verses 1 and 2 before the invention blazes out in the final setting where the double-quaver underpinning dilates to three, here with a powerful bank of reeds in full cry.

From the ordering in my edition of the Beethoven Aequale, the brass ensemble played the three works in the order 1-3-2. The first in D minor sounded rushed, although the players’ production could not be faulted. No. 3 – all 16 bars of it – presented confidently if sharing the choir’s tendency to set a rhythm and stick to it without the slightest chance of marginally elongating a rest. My only problem was not being able to discern the Trombone 4’s low B flat in the last chord.

The Bruckner brass trio followed and again showed acceptably accurate intonation except at two sustained semibreves in bars 8 and 24; both G major triads and not hard to pitch. The only other flaw came in the penultimate bar where the alto seemed to run out of breath/sustaining power on the rather important B natural..

In what I thought was the best music-making of the night, the choir gave a well-prepared reading of Brahms’ yearning sacred song, the canonic entries firmly enunciated and pitched across the three verses, Bowman a subtle accompanist offering plenty of support. As Prakhoff promised, the concluding Amen impressed for its sweet benevolence and a carefully restrained climactic point across bars 59 and 60, the only problem area a rough octave leap from the basses at bar 58.

Apart from Bowman’s interpolation of the Ich ruf zu dir chorale-prelude to replace the Bruckner with its high As and B flats for sopranos (and plenty of testing high stretches for tenors as well), the remainder of the program comprised the organist’s three new compositions, all of them enjoying their first performances here. The Ave Maria setting impressed immediately for its attractive main melody; if there’s one thing you can expect from Bowman’s compositions, it is lyrical fluency and a formal shape – nothing too complex but a use of sequencing and mirrors, as where the Dominus tecum mirrored the opening. Further, the composer shows a textual sensitivity, as in his restricting the texture to female voices alone at the start to et benedictus fructus ventris tui – which is mirrored later at et in hora mortis. In sum, this piece makes a welcome entry into a pretty well-stocked field and it’s distinguished for its ease and grace.

What took me by surprise in the Regina caeli setting was Bowman’s decision to use a Slavonic scansion for the text’s plentiful use of Alleluia, which here becomes a five-syllable All-e-lu-ee-a. The text is otherwise treated as expected, with a degree of repetition that can’t be avoided, because the text is so sparse and because each of its four lines ends with the aforesaid Alleluia, even if Bowman does overdo the word at his conclusion . . . which can be excused as a reaching towards the intended ecstasy of delight in a Marian hymn that focuses so much on Christ’s mission accomplished.

Prakhoff and his forces saved their most ambitious undertaking till last with the new Pater noster. Each phrase of the prayer is repeated; none of your Gregorian get-it-over-with rapidity here. As in much serious liturgical work for instruments and voices, the work is packed with doubling, first becoming obvious in the repetitions at sicut in caelo. I liked the abrupt change straight after this congestion to voices alone at Panem nostrum, even if this second half to the prayer – when the praise is finished and the demands come piling out – sounds more tentative and worked-at than the opening strophes. But the work’s involvement level leaps up some notches with the re-entry of the instrumental forces.

Bowman goes in for another extensive musical expansion on the sed libera nos a malo segment; understandable, since this is the most important demand that the pleader makes of his creator, but such insistence causes you to wonder if the penitent is feeling sure of success or is simply hoping that repetition bolsters the chances of the requested delivery coming through. The musical content is more thick in the prayer’s second part, and this final clause lives in the memory as a prime example of this solidity. Bowman provides an emphatic and hefty Amen, confident and fortified in its language – in the best Anglican style and different from his other works on this program which, as the composer admits, reveal his affiliation with similar Marian music by Poulenc.

We hope for better days in musical performance, just as most of us are optimistic about a more relaxed life in the coming era of universal Covid vaccination. As well, I’m sure that the Melbourne Bach Choir looks for a return to normal when its members re-group at full strength; after all, there’s not only safety in numbers.