Magnificat – Bach / Vivaldi

St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall
18th January 2020

Magnificent Magnificat

The Magnificat, the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary, lies at the heart of most traditions of Christian worship – Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant – and is commonly said or sung at daily evening services. Unsurprisingly, it has been set to music countless times, and on church festivals it has often drawn forth extended, splendidly elaborate settings. Two of the finest, those by Bach and Vivaldi, were the centre-pieces of the concert given by Colchester Chamber Choir in St Peter ad Vincula on January 18th to celebrate the choir’s tenth anniversary.

It was a fitting celebration of a decade of achievement, for the music of Bach constitutes one of the peaks of European music and offers rewards and challenges in equal measure. Bach often writes for voices as if they were instruments, and this requires considerable technique and vocal agility with clear, bright tone-colours and articulation. Above all, it needs the guiding hand of a Director who has a vision beyond the purely technical, to penetrate to the spiritual heart of the music and so inspire the singers. Roderick Earle, the choir’s conductor, is a singer and vocal coach at the highest levels of the profession and brings this experience to bear on his work with the choir. As a result, one would have to go to the professional choirs in London, Oxford or Cambridge to hear significantly better performances than this.

There were other factors that lifted this concert out of the ordinary. While it is not unusual for a choir to use some of its members as soloists, it is certainly uncommon for them all to be of such high quality and to work so well together in ensembles. This was, almost certainly, Bach’s own practice in Leipzig, and indeed his chorus may sometimes have consisted of no more than the soloists singing together. Another practice that lent authenticity to this concert was the inclusion of additional texts within those of the liturgy which were applicable to the season. Hence Bach’s Magnificat was adorned with interpolations of Vom Himmel Hoch (a German Christmas carol), an additional Gloria in excelsis Deo and other rarely heard short pieces, thus aligning it more closely to the Christmas season. Additionally, the concert started with a free-standing setting of the Gloria that Bach was to incorporate a few years later in his Mass in B minor. Nested within this feast of Bach was the Magnificat setting by Vivaldi, which formed a stimulating contrast. The music of this fiery, red-headed priest from Venice is simpler in conception than Bach’s and bolder in its drama; here again the choir projected the music’s character with verve and precision.

All the works in the programme required instrumental accompaniment. This was provided by an ensemble of seventeen players using eighteenth-century style instruments, played with appropriate period techniques. All were young, some of them postgraduate students, specialists in so-called early music. They brought extra vitality to the performance, and showed, incidentally, that early music is still a vigorous growth area in contemporary culture.

It is this sort of enterprising approach, as well as sheer technical and interpretative acumen, that makes the Colchester Chamber Choir one of the outstanding musical institutions in the East of England. No wonder tickets for their concerts are in such demand and that some 400 people filled St Peter’s that evening. We have an ideal venue, both visually and aurally, and an efficient, hard-working concert team who offer a warm welcome and every assistance to those who perform here. Even before you read this, Colchester Chamber Choir will have already returned here for another, quite different concert.

Michael Frith, Organist, St Peter ad Vincula