Works by JS Bach, Charlotte Harding, Gavin Higgins, Carmen Ho, Des Oliver, Heloïse Werner and JB Wilson
The Bach Choir; Faust Chamber Orchestra/David Hill
Stone Records 5060192781182 33:57 mins
Faced with repurposing its cancelled performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion during lockdown, the Bach Choir invited six composers to choose one of the work’s chorales, to select a text that in some way responded to it, and to write something suitable for online rehearsal. The result is six varied miniatures, each with its own soundworld drawing on the resources of an instrumental quintet offering piano, cello, oboe, horn and percussion. And last summer it finally became possible to record the set in live, in-person sessions, each work prefaced by the chorale that inspired it. (A shame that the opening Bach verse has such a clunky 19th-century translation: ‘O sacred head surrounded by crown of piercing thorn’!)
Among the responses, Charlotte Harding enlists the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, clothing them in plush, enveloping harmonies that work towards a radiant sunburst of a climax; Gavin Higgins on the other hand is stirred by Blake into a howl of outraged anger tempered by reflective contrasts. Heloïse Werner opts for French, underscoring a brief excerpt from Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations with a pungent palette including incantatory chanting and lithe rhythms that prefigure the concluding dance imperative. Throughout all the composers’ changing demands, the choir repays David Hill’s fastidious and disciplined direction with impressive precision and – when required – attack; and for those who have forgotten the sound of ‘Choral Society Bach’, the well-upholstered, hallowed a cappella chorales themselves sound like a reassuring ancient commentary echoing down the ages. An imaginative project, sympathetically realised.