The Bach Choir is beyond doubt an excellent ensemble. It sings with great beauty, precision and energy, and the voices complement each other well. This concert was a moderately expensive, smart affair, with students performing in the wind-band (perhaps a little under-rehearsed for the conductor’s fast tempos) but conspicuous by their absence from the half-filled auditorium.
The Choir was warmly welcomed to the Royal College of Music by the Director of the College, Dr Colin Lawson; it was a pity that this hospitality didn’t run to ensuring that the performance of Bruckner’s Mass would not be sabotaged by the intrusion of rehearsing instrumentalists without, who were apparently oblivious that their sound was disastrously audible in the Concert Hall. No-one from the College seemed to be on hand to put a stop to this catastrophe, the conductor himself having to leave the hall in search of the perpetrators before returning to embark upon the 'Benedictus', which, not surprisingly, was derailed by a false start by the choir.
But, in truth, this was the least of the problems with the concert, which opened with a "Locus iste" that in retrospect displayed all the limitations of David Hill’s approach throughout the evening. The concert was advertised as "a night of Bruckner’s most rousing choral music", which should have been warning enough, for Hill’s conception was predicated on the achievement of fast, loud and dramatic climaxes. This was the direction and apparent purpose of every section of every piece, and certainly it was impressive and exciting – at first. But, again in "Locus iste" for example, it was totally inapposite to the words Bruckner had set: "This place was made by God, a priceless mystery…". This motet is indeed an ideal piece to open a concert of sacred music, an act of dedication, but there was no sense here that conductor or choir were aware of any mystery: it was too fast, too loud, too prosaic.
The same must be said for the entire performance of the "Mass". David Hill chose to perform the second version of 1882 which, although lacking much of the clarity and daring of the first version of 1866, can be done to powerful effect (as, for example, by The Russian State Symphonic Cappella under Valeri Polyansky for Chandos). But it needs soul – or at least poetry. What was presented here was mere prose – loud, speedy, hectoring prose. Phrases that speak of extraordinary mysteries were enunciated as though without special meaning and went for nothing. So ‘Et resurrexit’ was indeed rousing, filled with excitement and decibels – but as if for no reason.
In between the motets and the Mass, Jane Watts, the choir’s accompanist, performed the finale of Widor’s Symphony No.2, a piece of frightening triviality when played out of context. After the "Mass" the choir’s conductor laureate, Sir David Willcocks, was called from the audience to an encore: one-time singer in the choir Sir Hubert Parry’s "I was glad". Suddenly the atmosphere in the hall changed: the choir was glad, the audience was glad, everyone felt at home in the grand British choral tradition: and not for the first time Anton Bruckner had received short shrift.