Spring Concert, May 2009

St James’s Church, STONEHAVEN

At this year’s Spring Concert, the Stonehaven Chorus offered one of the great time-honoured classics of church music, Bach’s Magnificat in D. This they set alongside the world premiere of the new English version of a Requiem by Fredrik Sixten, one of Sweden’s most celebrated composers of contemporary church music. Dr John Hearne, the Choir’s musical director is a valued ambassador for Scandinavian music. Like a rare plant hunter, he seeks out little known musical gems to set before new audiences while also scripting fine English translations for contemporary choral works. Dr Hearne already has another major Swedish work, Lars-Erik Larsson’s A God Disguised to his credit and now, with his new translation of Bengt Pohjanen’s Swedish verses, he offers Fredrik Sixten’s Requiem the opportunity of much wider recognition throughout the English speaking world.

The composer himself was in the audience for this momentous event and to further ensure its success, Dr Hearne had persuaded the North-East’s finest orchestra Aberdeen Sinfonietta to take part in the performance.

Sixten’s Requiem is a fascinating work. It sets sections of the traditional Latin Mass alongside and sometimes against the vernacular. These verses fire up the emotional impact of the work giving it a raw power that strips away the anodyne familiarity of the ritualised Latin. The music drives the emotional thrust of the words still further. The stark harmonies and ferocity of the Libera Me set against the inspired soprano solo in the Pie Jesu or the gentle composure of the ending exemplified an astonishing breadth of emotional expression throughout the work. Often, moments of pain or bleakness in the music would dissolve into sweet harmonies and soothing melodies all delivered by choir, orchestra and soloists in delicious layers of atmospheric musical colour. The highlights of this performance included soprano Wilma MacDougall’s effortless soaring in the Pie Jesu, the unaccompanied chorus in the Agnus Dei or the dark night of the soul expressed so eloquently by the bass soloist Stewart Kempster in the Lux Aeterna.

A lot of time had obviously been spent on this challenging new work and obviously it paid off. The choir did not have quite as strong a hold of their parts in the Bach Magnificat although their contributions to the centre of the work were more satisfying. Actually none of this mattered too much because the orchestra and soloists gave such fabulous performances. Glorious trumpets lit up the opening and closing sections of the work,orchestral solos on flutes and oboe d’amore were absolutely delicious and the four vocal soloists were just heroic. Wilma MacDougall and Stewart Kempster were joined by mezzo Elysia Leech (her Esurientes implevit alone was worth the trip to Stonehaven) while tenor Iain Milne was remarkable for both the strength and joyous clarity of his singing. Actually in the Magnificat there were five soloists, in Suscepit Israel, Wilma and Elysia were joined by soprano Oonagh McAlpine from the chorus. Their nicely blended singing provided a fine sweep across the whole spectrum of soprano voices.