Monday, November 24, 2008

Joyous prelude to Christmas

Review by Donald Cullington for the ODT:

For its pre-Christmas concert in the Town Hall on Saturday, the City of Dunedin Choir chose J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio - six cantatas written in 1734 for different Christmastide services. It proved an excellent choice, bringing out the best in all those involved.

Bach himself must take first place in the credits. Working within narrow confines — the religious and artistic culture of the Germany of his day - he nevertheless wrote church music of such variety, inventiveness and imagination that it can still astonish and inspire, as the reactions of the large and appreciative Dunedin audience showed.

But meeting Bach's demands is not easy, for he requires virtuoso technique and stamina from both instruments and voices.

The four principal soloists here, however, formed a strong team, impressive in solos and ensembles alike: Nicola Edgecombe a brightly-shining soprano, Kate Spence a warmtoned alto, John Murray a clear and confident tenor, and Chris Bruerton a sensitive and wellmodulated bass. The choir sang with accuracy and assurance throughout, both in the dancelike choruses and in the more reflective chorales, the outnumbered tenors on the whole coping manfully with their soaring lines, the sopranos excelling in their two chorales with bass soloist, and one, Catherine Daly, beautifully echoing the soloist in one item.

The Southern Sinfonia gave splendid and unflagging support, always setting the pace with verve and precision. Special mention must be made of Sydney Manowitz's violin solos and his duet with Sandra Crawshaw, Nicholas Cornish's incredible staying power on the oboe, the stylish continuoplaying of David Murray (cello) and John van Buskirk (chamber organ), and the brilliance of trumpets and horns.

Overseeing and masterfully uniting these forces was David Burchell, who doubled as harpsichordist and conductor. He should feel proud of his achievement, for if the necessary cuts in this long work may have caused some un-Bach-like harmonic jolts, and if the omission of the pastoral sinfonia from Cantata 2 caused particular distress, I am sure that St Cecilia, whose special day November 22 also was, smiled down on his devoted attention to one of her most famous sons.

About the reviewer:
A native of northern England, Donald Cullington graduated in Classics at Cambridge before qualifying as a musician (with a BMus at Durham, a DMus at Edinburgh, etc.). His musical career - as pianist, organist, choirtrainer and teacher - spans four decades so far, and has included four years (1975-78) as Director of Music at St Paul's Cathedral in Dunedin, and twenty-eight years in Northern Ireland as initiator, developer and (for many years) Head of the Music Department at the University of Ulster.

Publication: Otago Daily Times; Date: Nov 24, 2008; Page Number: 4

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