Bach and the Stile Antico
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Credo in Unum Deum, BWV1081 [0:48]
Giovanni Battista BASSANI (1657-1716)
Credo in Unum Deum [5:39]
Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736)
Suscepit Israel [1:37]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist, BWV671 [5:39]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (1525/6-1594)
Missa Sine Nomine: Kyrie [3:34], Gloria [5:50]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Aus tiefer Not, BWV686 [8:16]
Mass in B minor, BWV232: Credo [30:11]
Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Ars Eloquentiae
St Salvator’s Chapel Choir/Tom Wilkinson (organ)
rec. 17-20 June 2015, St. Salvator’s Church, Dundee and 24 October 2015, Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh (organ solos)

Even in the richly varied world of the own label, Sanctiandree is unique. Unlike other own labels, it is not associated with a specific performing group or musical organisation, but with a university – the University of St Andrews in Scotland. On top of that, St Andrews has neither a faculty nor a department of music, and none of its students is pursuing a full-time course of musical study. If anyone does associate the University of St Andrews with music, it is probably those who recall its last Professor of Music, Cedric Thorpe Davie, whose claim to fame in the wider musical world lies in his arrangement of Auld Lang Syne made for the Last Night of the Proms in 1953 (and repeated there last season) and his film-score for the British comedy classic The Green Man. After Davie’s retirement in 1978 music effectively disappeared from the radar at St Andrews, and until very recently was confined to a tiny music centre manned by a handful of dedicated staff under the direction of Michael Downes. However Downes, along with the University’s full-time organist, Tom Wilkinson, have been working tirelessly to rebuild St Andrews musical life, with plans for a new purpose-built music block as well as generous scholarships for singers and instrumentalists. The Sanctiandree label is part of that rebuilding process.

Downes, who had previously been Director of Music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, took with him to St Andrews the eminent Fitzwilliam String Quartet – best known for their matchless recordings of the Shostakovich cycle – who now spearhead a high-profile annual strings course there, while Wilkinson has so raised the profile of the University’s principal choir – the St Salvator’s Chapel Choir – that it ranks alongside established choral groups from other, more musically-endowed Scottish universities. The Sanctiandree label projects the University’s expanding musical profile and its enthusiastic student performers before a wider global audience.

This latest release, reflecting Wilkinson’s own academic interests (he is currently preparing a PhD on the music of Bach) represents a dramatic rise in ambitions and achievements for both this fledgling label and the fledgling musical life of the University. It is still obvious from some ragged runs in the “Et resurrexit” from the B minor Mass and the uneven solo voices (although I must lavish unreserved praise on the pure, beautifully focused voice of soprano Olivia Clark and on the delightfully agile baritone of Christophe Mayr) that this is more a work in progress than a viable first choice for those seeking a satisfying recorded performance; but there again, that is not the purpose of this CD. Although with orchestral playing of such supreme excellence as we have from both the Fitzwilliams and the members of Ars Eloquentiae, there is much to relish here on a purely aural level.

It would not be a university-based project if the main focus of this release was not an academic contextualising of an aspect of Bach’s great B Minor Mass. And with Wilkinson’s own extensive and highly scholarly essay (with more footnotes, references and tables than any commercial record label would ever permit) beautifully presented in a lavish, 50-page booklet with German and Japanese translations, we get to the true focus of this disc. It is, to quote Wilkinson, “an exploration of Bach’s encounter with the stile antico”, and juxtaposes pieces by Bassani and Caldara, with two movements from a Mass by the recognised master of the Stile antico, Palestrina, and a couple of Bach’s own organ preludes which bear some stylistic and thematic connections with the choral items on the disc.

Wilkinson’s performance of the two Bach preludes is serious and, at times, dangerously weighty, the very laborious tread of “Aus tiefer” stretching it out to an astonishing eight and a quarter minutes (as opposed to the more usual five or six). Both preludes become a little tedious on disc when played as slowly as this, but one cannot but admire the textural clarity and musical integrity of Wilkinson’s playing.
On the podium, directing his choral and instrumental forces, Wilkinson takes on a much more vividly communicative demeanour. The opening Bach Credo – Bach’s filling out of the original intoned opening of Bassanti’s setting – has a wonderfully sprightly step to it, spruced up by some delicious continuo work from Thomas Foster and some wonderfully bird-like twitterings from violinists Lucy Russell and Marcus Barcham-Stevens. Wilkinson keeps it all very light on its feet, compensating for the sometimes fragile solo voices and the lack of true depth in the chorus. Rhythmic vigour is the key element here, but in the Amen, the long-breathed melodic lines are splendidly sustained across the choir. This carries on in an equally sprightly account of a verse from Caldara’s Magnificat.

The main work on the disc, the B minor Mass Credo has great energy and vitality, helped along by a virile striding bass, some exceptional trumpet playing (in the “Patrem omnipotentem”), and a subtle sense of balance which integrates instrumental and vocal forces most effectively. The acoustical environment of the Dundee church in which the recording was made adds just the right amount of bloom to the sound without in any way obscuring the crystalline detail over which Wilkinson lavishes so much care.

Probably the best choral singing on the disc comes in the Palestrina where the intertwining polyphonic lines are superbly traced, the choir showing a real sensitivity towards the style as well as a lovely blend of tone and exemplary diction. If the scholarly depth of this release seems a little daunting to the less academically-inclined listener, then on the strength of this performance alone the disc can be very strongly recommended.

Marc Rochester

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