Birmingham Bach Choir

St Paul’s Church

St Paul’s Square, Birmingham


How lucky Birmingham is to have a host of spirited choral societies. As a prelude, and a tribute, I’m going to go through a cheerful long list.

One of the several large ones, and the one whose fascinating latest concert is reviewed below, is the Birmingham Bach Choir, directed with his usual expressive sweeping gestures and exciting aplomb, insight, experience and deep musical intelligence by Paul Spicer.

Others? Enter the Birmingham Festal Choral Society, conducted by David Wynne; the City of Birmingham Choir, directed by Adrian Lucas, the admirable former organist of Worcester Cathedral; the Birmingham Choral Union, reaching back to the 19th century, with Colin Baines as its conductor for 42 years, and which has Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in its sights for 2024; and of course Ex Cathedra, the scintillating chamber ensemble, sometimes enlarged, masters of enticing Baroque repertoire, created and led by Jeffrey Skidmore.

There are yet others: the more funky ‘Voice of the Town’ choir; the handsomely charity-supporting Phoenix Singers; the joyous Birmingham section of the national ‘Choir with no Name’, focusing specially on homeless and marginalised people; the Cantare Choir disporting popular repertoire; SHE Choir, especially for women and non-binary folk; the gay choir Rainbow Voices, conductor Rosie Howarth; Steel City Chorus, another gay chorus celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and headed by Artistic Director Elizabeth Fisher. What a turnout.

And oh my goodness, the 180-strong CBSO Chorus (again plus CBSO Youth Chorus), energised, conducted and stupendously programmed by Simon Halsey, who has added Choral Directorships in Holland and Germany, following Simon Rattle to Berlin to work wonders while he was there.

But Paul Spicer’s Birmingham Bach Choir is certainly one of Birmingham’s gems. And not least because Spicer is bold enough to introduce repertoire that is rarely, or fairly rarely, heard, thus introducing his choir and audience to intriguing stuff you jolly nearly can’t catch anywhere else. That’s a huge contribution – one might say a great bonus – to the English choral world as a whole. It opens eyes. It opens ears. Often enough he makes these fresh, unnoticed works dazzle. They certainly made mine.     

So, what were they this time? Well to summarise, a major work by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1957, thus an exact contemporary of Bach and Handel) – the reverse of 1934 when three composers lost and lamented in 1934: Elgar, Delius and Holst - all died within a few months, even weeks, of each other. Scarlatti, famed in Naples, Venice then Rome, is, as any keyboard player knows, most famous for his piano or harpsichord music (555 piano sonatas. I, at school, was taught a wonderful, witty Scarlatti piece called The Cat’s Fugue) than his choral output. His Stabat Mater is recorded by Sir John Eliot Gardiner (on the Erato label); there is a quarter-hour Magnificat, and Miserere, and a surprising host of shorter anthems, some put on disc by an adventurous American choir, and certain others recorded by Stephen Cleobury, no less, and his outstanding choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

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The other spicy works in this Spicer concert were a major Mass (one of four) by Franz Liszt, although his biggest choral undertaking was his massive oratorio Christus (filling up three CDs. And, as a taster to this exploratory concert – and, ludicrously - the least performed of Bach’s otherwise famed six (some have suggested seven) unaccompanied Motets sacred Motets, Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir’ ‘Fear ye not, for I am with you’.

And let it be said, this Bach, in the often buoyant key of A major (others include E minor, G minor, C major), was a thrill to hear in the aptly named Bach Choir’s performance. The whole text (in large part from Isaiah) and atmosphere is reassuring – its consoling demeanour obviously closely connected with the fact this Motet was composed for a funeral two years after Bach succeeded Kuhnau in Leipzig (although some date it back to his earlier period at Weimar, 1708-17).  Spicer modestly says, of all Bach’s great Motets (‘Lobet den Herrn’, ‘Jauchzet dem Herrn’, ‘Singet dem Herrn’, etc.), ‘this is, for me, the most difficult to interpret’.

Well no such issue here: his mastery was evident at every turn – essential where the chorus breaks into a double (eight-part) choir. ‘Du bist mein!’ are optimistic words repeated in the central chorale, where (and later) the sopranos’ line emerges as a kind of extended cantus firmus, and, as Spicer in a fine programme note points out, supplies a top line that rides serenely over busier lower voices, who engage in some highly active – almost battling - counterpoint. ‘’I am yours, because you gave your life and your blood'. What blazing affirmation. What marvellous stuff.

There were two organ contributions from Lichfield Cathedral’s immensely proficient Assistant Director of Music, Martyn Rawles. The Vivaldi double Violin Concerto arranged by Bach for organ struck me as a nonentity of a piece (though the string original may have been more lively). Much of the registration was the same, or similar, the actual content – dare I suggest it? - verging on the vapid. The energetic and virtuosic passages seemed scarcely to emerge, though Rawles had no trouble in getting round the latter.

His second contribution was Bach’s deeply touching chorale prelude ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’, not from the extended Orgelbüchlein, but one of his celebrated 18 Chorale Preludes. Here both the content and the, as it were, orchestration fared much better. Indeed Bach composed a cantata on this material soon afterwards. Rawles fished out a wonderful solo stop, rather reedy, almost a kind of shawm, where the Lutheran chorale (‘Deck thyself, my soul with gladness, Leave the dark cage of sin’) rides vividly above the rest (or indeed internally), yet varied it with flutes, or soft diapasons, or whatever, to underline the shifting moods (which gradually grow to joyous affirmation). For me Bach spins it out too much at the end, but those around me felt the length was wholly apt for the words (culminating in the cantata with ‘that I may be thy guest not on earth, but in heaven’.


Paul Spicer (above) confided to me that Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater – a gem well worthy of the Bach Choir’s resurrecting of it – is a favourite work for him. As I told him in honesty, it’s not, on the whole, a feeling I really share, despite a wholly adequate – I will not say exciting – performance from the ten-part choir. I have heard the work before – in fact have it on disc (there are one or two recordings), and this revival only confirmed my response to that.

A lot of it is in the same key, or at least lingers in whatever key it is in. There are key changes which might make it more arresting, ‘Fac me plagis vulnerari’, but quite often these are momentary, the work slipping back almost instantly into the same as before. In the first two sections there is an unmistakable sameyness, a lack of incisiveness, virtually nothing one could compare with Bach.  

There are things to praise, however. A lot of inner partwork – the altos, for example – gave force to the third section (‘Quis non posset contristari?’). Paul Spicer’s inveterate leadership and scrupulous preparation of the choir meant that dynamic transitions – especially to piano or mezzo piano (indeed here and there pianissimo) were to everyone’s huge credit; a passage at ‘Eja Mater, istud agas’ yielded some astonishing bars for what sounded like all four groups of sopranos, positively bouncy in Scarlatti’s invention (indeed the buoyancy was to be doubled, or more than quadrupled, when the choir got to ‘Inflammatus et incensus’, heralded by a rather good tenors’ lead). ‘Tui nati vulnerati’, very soft and gentle, was another memorable patch, preceding a contrasted, more energetic ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’.

On the negative side, the worst aspect is that Scarlatti seemed incapable of enhancing each set of words – so moving, so embracing – hence there was little that suggested Christ’s mother, or grieving, or Jesus himself suffering (‘In his very blood away’ – although that graphic phrase is not what the Latin text says).

 There were too few consonants coming across to the audience from any part of the chorus, and even the vowels were a bit vapid: these need clear characterising, not least in a Baroque piece, and I found that missing overall. But the numerous fugues, or fugal fragments, needed a lot of rehearsal, and that had certainly instilled itself well into the attentive chorus. The final Amen was very good (in 3/4 time, assuming not 3/8, and vividly conducted in one). In fact the whole of those final bars (‘Fac ut animae donetur…’) seemed to shine, with clear counterpoint and some stretching out of pacing - always a good idea here - came over as the most significant and successful part of the whole work, and the point at which Scarlatti’s effort veered closest to Bach.

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 Picture: National Churches Trust

Mention of fugues takes one on to Liszt. And here the choir amazingly, from the start, was galvanised into a very exciting interpretation; as if they found the work highly stimulating. The work really came alive. Any reservations I had before were dissipated, blown away by Paul and the Bach Choir’s thrilling performance. The work was energised: it came alive.

The more or less traditional, a little tentative – limp? - even slightly outdated sound that had preceded became vivid, excitingly edgy, forceful, penetrating, convincing, extremely well prepared strongly characterised. In some early parts, believe it or not, Liszt seems almost to transform into Poulenc. The Kyries impacted tremendously, including – not paradoxically – in the more delicately phased (and phrased) Christe Eleison.  The whispering staccato ‘e-le-is-son,’ repeated at the movement’s end, so subtly nursed by Spicer, was simply brilliant., and the men’s joint dropping of their voices at the final three eleisons was simply amazing.

The Gloria opened again with the men, full voiced as often during this work, Liszt constantly ringing the structural and dynamic changes. There were soft passages, most obviously, at (if I’m right) ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’. On these occasions, to put it crudely, the choir as a whole knew when to shut up: as a result, their pianissimi were truly remarkable (the inspired opening of the Benedictus was a classic example; but especially et sepultus est in the Gloria, and amazingly engineered silent moments, and pauses, near that vital section’s close).

Here, as at every point, Paul Spicer’s meticulous control, insight, indeed imaginative, imitative invention, of what form of alternate pacing most suited Liszt’s intentions, yielded numerous dividends (the slow pacing of ‘Qui tollis’ was one). His translation of Dona nobis pacem’ - virtually spoken - in the Agnus Dei into a bright, dazzling triple forte was truly electrifying. The extraordinary, subdued Hosannas exemplified his virtually intuitive, empathetic musical mastery.   The Missa Choralis dons some surprising disguises. I mentioned Poulenc at the start. By the end we were – surely no surprise – close to César Franck. The men may have a declamatory passage (the other voices feeding in) at ‘Filium Dei unigenitum’, but at ‘Deum de Deo’ it seems to metamorphose into Russian Orthodox (Liszt, of course – by now (1866) himself transmuted into the Abbé  Liszt – knew Russian music well, as did Debussy after him. Those fading Hosannas when they briefly explode become so French, you almost expect a Cavaillé-Coll organ to burst into action, rather than the rather subdued, sauntering, mirroring, almost negligible support role he allocates to Martin Rawles’ almost muted but apt accompaniment.

And yes, there is a glimpse of Wagner (Liszt’s son-in-law), even if only momentarily in a Tristan-like chord at ‘miserere nobis’ amid the Agnus: that revolutionary opera (1857 to ’59 – Liszt will have known its evolution, even if only on piano - and premiered in Munich (coincidentally) in June 1865.  There are four soloists, who are if anything - a criticism, even a complaint - underused by the composer, but whose moment comes in the Benedictus, the tenor having an extraordinary task amid its susurrating close.

So, the Birmingham Bach Choir under Paul Spicer took us on a journey. An admirable, at times moving, varied, affirmative, enlightening, inspired and indeed daring adventure. When and where will we hear Liszt’s Missa Choralis again? Maybe we will have to go to Budapest, or Paris. But how wonderful that we were given such a treat by the BBC. We were very fortunate indeed. And for me, it was a real and welcome learning process. A big thank you.

Roderic Dunnett


Birmingham Bach Choir  

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