BBC Singers & John Scott

Hymn to St Cecilia
Organ works [selection]
Domenico Scarlatti
Stabat mater

BBC Singers
David Hill

John Scott (organ)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Britten’s distinguished setting of W. H. Auden’s highly moving words – an extraordinary mix of private confession and public declaration – was, here, a gentle, rather subdued affair. This intimate music sounded distant. It did not reach one’s heart close – sounding, too reverential to engage one’s mind and too smooth for its harmonies to sound awkwardly distinctive. The resolute ending briefly brought the piece to life. Elizabeth Poole’s pleasing soprano soared with ease over the main body of sound.

2007 is the 300th-anniversary of Buxtehude’s death. He was organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck for 39 years and was distinguished for his improvisations once a service had ended. The ‘free’ works played by John Scott were found in manuscripts originally held by pupils and friends of J. S. Bach, who held Buxtehude in high esteem. These seven organ pieces showed remarkable freshness and inventiveness. An enquiring musical sensibility was manifestly experimenting with new sounds, shapes and patterns with an acute musical intelligence. The style of each was differentiated and arresting. Unexpected moments derived from eclectic combinations of improvisation (sometimes left hanging in the air), chorale references, contrapuntal ingenuity and magisterial fugal passages.

By 1707, Buxtehude’s famed Marienkirche organ encompassed 52 stops on three manuals and pedals. John Scott – a specialist in this music – played the magnificent Royal Albert Hall organ with distinction and aplomb, alert to the vicarious spirit of Buxtehude’s genius, creating sounds ranging from soft, delicate woodwind to a grand, impressive swell. This year, John Scott played the complete organ works of Buxtehude over 10 concerts in the St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York where he is now Organist and Musical Director.

In Domenico Scarlatti’s “Stabat Mater”, the BBC Singers, under new conductor David Hill, took on a more robust, impressive sonority. Its volume made the harp, the theorbo and the chamber organ virtually inaudible. At the time of writing, the style was considered to reproduce the polyphony of Palestrina’s era. Today, the style is decidedly Baroque. Scarlatti directs ingenuity of means towards a uniform end. He varies the vocal parts – through co-ordinating, separating and re-deploying them in varying combinations – in the service of grave, soulful contemplation of the weeping mother of God at the foot of the Cross (and seeking to share in her agony).

The intensifying gravity, notified through significant key changes, recalls Haydn’s (later) “Seven Last Words on the Cross”. The manner of writing is conventional – none of Buxtehude’s explorations here! – but the general tone commands respect. The very repetitions are satisfying and appropriate. Towards the end, Olivia Robinson and Christopher Bowen gave the music further soul when, rising above the choral mass, their voices asserted an individual humanity. The performance was a soberly stirring experience.

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