Paul Hale as choral conductor

Nottingham Post – 24 June 2019 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir – St Mary’s Church, Lacemarket – 22 June 2019

An era has ended: Paul Hale conducted his final Bach Choir concert on Saturday. By rights he should have broken his baton in two and there should have been a loud clap of thunder. Instead he very elegantly passed it on to his successor, Dr Peter Siepmann. And after a few well-chosen words he was gone – after 29 years of directing fine performances grown from deep knowledge of a wide repertoire.

Saturday’s programme summed up a man equally at home on the podium and in the organ loft. Haydn’s Little Organ Mass came first, the essence of all those masses of Masses which he must have conducted over the years. Haydn has to fit so much into such a tiny space that the work brims over the with energy and to this Paul Hale added elegance, wit and much insight into phrasing. The Choir and the accompanying NBC String Quintet responded with brightness of tone and obvious enjoyment.

Not surprisingly Bach featured: his Singet dem Herrn got off to a nicely zingy start and showed off the Choir’s accuracy, agility and ability to keep textures transparent. Bach’s music is extremely testing for the singers, a fact not lost on the audience who clearly appreciated the way the Choir coped with the motet’s constant changes of tempo, dynamics and mood.

In the second half, baritone Stephen Cooper was the eloquently intelligent soloist in Vaughan Williams’s setting of George Herbert’s poems, Five Mystical Songs. The music travels from exultation to triumph via moments of visionary stillness, the balance and rapport between soloist and Choir always impressive.

As well as an uplifting performance of Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, the concert also featured Paul Hale as organist: first in duet with Peter Siepmann, playing the rarely heard Duet for Organ by Samuel Wesley and then his solo performance of Franck’s Choral No. 3, its tender central section particularly lovely.

It all added up to a joyous celebration of Nottingham’s musical life and one man’s contribution to it for the last three decades.

ReviewGate  – 24 November 2018 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Players
Elgar The Apostles

An Elgar oratorio with plenty of Wagnerian intensity. If you’re not religious (and even if you are) it could have been a bit daunting to open the Nottingham Bach Choir’s programme for Elgar’s The Apostles and see the nine pages of words which Elgar set to music. Elgar’s fervent commitment to his faith leaps off the pages before a note is sounded. And there’s the cast list too: Jesus, Apostles (of course), Mary Magdalene plus an Angel and Mystic Chorus..

Once the work starts, however, the effect is quite different. This is Elgar’s Wagner opera, its music thrilling for believers and non-believers alike, its network of leitmotivs worming their way into the listener’s subconscious, ensuring that each of its many episodes has its own vividly portrayed atmosphere. Take for instance how the Nottingham Bach Choir and Players handled the Prologue, seizing the attention with a grandly dignified richness of sound, laying before the audience with judiciously paced clarity some of the oratorio’s major themes: the ‘Man of Sorrows’, the Gospel and the foundation of the Church.

There was much razor-sharp detail amongst the finely drawn scenes, such as the sounding of the shofar, the Jewish ritual trumpet, as dawn breaks and the sun rises on the morning prayers in the temple. And there was much drama in the depiction of character. Marcus Farnsworth (as Jesus) and all the other soloists (Philippa Boyle, Jessica Gillingwater, Timothy Langston, Stephen Cooper and Julian Empett) brought not only fine voices but also much operatic intensity to their roles.

The final scene illustrated just how carefully conductor Paul Hale had prepared choir, orchestra and soloists for this performance. The Apostles look up to Heaven, joining with the Angels in what seemed a miracle of radiant scoring. The inevitability, the sureness of the symphonic sweep was a fitting climax to a fine performance.

Nottingham Post  – 28 March 2018 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir

Bach’s Passions, his musical settings of the events of Good Friday, are the nearest things to operas that he wrote. The compelling biblical narrative is supercharged with musical, dramatic and spiritual energy not only in settings of the Gospel texts but also in a series of reflective arias and monumental choruses.

The Nottingham Bach Choir, under their conductor Paul Hale, performed on Saturday the St John Passion, music which resides deep within the heart of this choir, their musicianship and commitment making it one of their best performances of recent years.

The projection of the biblical text was outstanding. The role of Evangelist is central to the whole drama and on his shoulders lies the burden of communicating the detail and meaning of the events before, during and after the Crucifixion. Ruairi Bowen was compelling from beginning to end, with a beautifully agile voice and probing musical intelligence. Crucially he hardly ever looked at his score, allowing him to communicate directly with the audience and to interact with Stephen Cooper (a sensitively portrayed Christus) and other characters from the narrative. In fact, the whole performance sprang from the bloodstream rather than the page.

All the other soloists (Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Jessica Gillingwater, David de Winter and Greg Skidmore) were effective at injecting a personal, lyrical and contemplative element into the drama. Again they sang with their eyes, not just with beautiful voices.

The Bach Choir sang movingly in the devotional chorales, demonstrating their imaginative involvement in the events of the Passion. And they were hugely impressive in the massive choruses which frame the story. Here Paul Hale moulded tightly disciplined performances from both singers and the highly responsive orchestra. This was incisive, high-energy music-making which gripped from the outset and kept the audience in its spell until the end.

Nottingham Post  – 27 November 2017 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra
Handel Saul

The Nottingham Bach Choir clearly relished the opportunities Saul gives for showing off vocal versatility. The work is full of rapid mood-shifts: mourning at one moment, joy at another. They were excellent at triumphing over their enemies in the opening chorus, praising the Lord in a song of triumph over the Philistines. This set the tone for some vivid word-painting by the soloists. The final minutes offered a good example of just how expertly conductor Paul Hale shaped the Choir’s rapid dramatic transitions: their lament for the heaps of dead warriors was full of pathos; their praise of their warriors’ heroism was heart-felt; their confidence in future victory resplendent and beyond all doubt.

Choral Journal (US) – May 2015
Choral Music by Vierne and Langlais
Choir of Southwell Minster
Regent Records: REGCD425

The recording contains first-rate choral singing with refined and nuanced sound. This reviewer was impressed with the color and the dynamic ranges of the choir and how they sounded at home with the acoustics of Sées Cathedral. The choral singing, focused and with rhythmic vitality, keeps the music moving forward. The choir, organs, and acoustics were perfectly matched for the task at hand. The combination of music composed for two organs and choir, coupled with the organs that would have performed them, makes this disc a must-have.

Nottingham Post – 24 November 2014 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra
Mozart Requiem; Haydn Nelson Mass

Two of the greatest sacred choral works of the classical era were written just a few years apart in the 1790s: Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass. And the Nottingham Bach Choir sang both in their Saturday concert. If anyone had thought for a moment that including both would have placed too many demands on singers and audience, the performances entirely vindicated the decision. And each masterpiece was illuminated by the other. What was impressive was not only the grandeur of the big effects but the amount of subtle detail which conductor Paul Hale’s rehearsals had clearly unearthed and imprinted on the performance of his singers and players.

Mozart’s Requiem skilfully blended power, gravitas and lightness of touch. The score’s dark sonorities were movingly projected and the chorus sang with passion and energy, highly responsive to dynamic contrasts and to the meaning of the text. The tearful sighing at the start of the Lacrymosa concluded with a shatteringly powerful ‘Amen’. The Dies Irae gained much of its terrifying power not through brute force but through the choir’s disciplined control of rhythm. Throughout entries were always confident and secure, giving the Hosannas at the end of the Agnus Dei and Benedictus a real sense of elation.

The Haydn Mass had a similar wealth of precisely crafted effects – such as the brief pauses in the Kyrie in which the music was allowed to hang in the air awaiting completion. The well-balanced choral textures, set against an orchestra dominated by drums and trumpets, produced thrilling results, especially at the end of the Credo.

Abigail Broughton, Ruth Massey, Nicholas Scott and William Townend were the four impressive soloists. All sang eloquently, clearly at one in their vision of the works with all the musicians ranged behind them.

**** BBC Music Magazine – June 2014
Choral Music by Vieme and Langlais
Choir of Southwell Minster
Regent Records: REGCD425

Paul Hale’s direction is biting and incisive, and the result is a gripping, dramatic performance.

Organists’ Review – May 2014 – critic Richard Lyne
Choir of Southwell Minster
Choral Music by Vieme and Langlais
Regent Records: REGCD425

What a brilliant way to celebrate the twinning of Southwell with Sées (Basse Normandie). Twinning gives communities the opportunity to experience the life and customs of a different country and here we are able to benefit from Southwell’s obvious enjoyment of performing Messe Solennelle settings by Vierne and Langlais in Sées Cathedral vith the accompaniment of two magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organs. We are ‘gripped by the ears’ from the opening sounds of the Grand Orgue and our attention is held to the very end. The choir sings with great energy, sensitivity and conviction. Throughout, the ensemble between choir and the two organs is excellent, and yet we are still aware of the expanse of the building. Only very occasionally does the Grand Orgue overshadow the choir, but this only heightens our sensation of being there. It is interesting to note that Vierne gave the inaugural recital on the restored organ in Sées Cathedral in 1910, some ten years or so after he composed his Messe Solennelle.

The masses are separated by fine performances by Hilary Punnett and Simon Hogan who explore the full tonal palette available on the 1883 Cavaillé-Coll. Many congratulations to Paul Hale and Gary Cole for an exciting recording; buy it!

BBC Radio 3 CD Review – March 15th 2014
Choral Music by Vieme and Langlais
Choir of Southwell Minster
Regent Records: REGCD425

It’s a magnificent sound just as Vierne intended it ….the Southwell choir’s boys are pretty impressive and the scale of the recording is just right.

Nottingham Post – March 14 2015 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra
Vaughan Williams Towards the Unknown Region
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius

The Nottingham Bach Choir and Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra have boldly gone where no musical organisations have gone before. On Saturday night they presented an entire programme, two hours of English choral music, without an interval. And anyone who has ever suffered cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of the Minster’s back-breaking chairs will know what that means. So was this a good way to celebrate the Choir’s 60th anniversary season? To that there must be a resounding ‘Yes!’ Such were the performances of Vaughan Williams’ Towards the Unknown Region and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius that the music gripped and moved the audience from the outset and no interval meant that the grip was never relaxed.

The opening Vaughan Williams work gave the Choir plenty to get its teeth into. Paul Hale ensured the performance was full of drama, sharp contrasts of mood and control of a wide dynamic range. The climax of the piece packed a huge sonic punch. If death was an ‘unknown region’ for Vaughan Williams, it was something much more knowable for Elgar. The Catholic and highly specific language of The Dream of Gerontius may not be to everyone’s taste, but its music plunges deep into the human spirit and can move and inspire the most convinced unbeliever.

Robert Murray was an outstanding Gerontius, conveying calm serenity or spiritual passion in equal measure. Madeleine Shaw as the Angel would have melted the hardest of hearts, and Marcus Farnsworth was strongly commanding both as the Priest and as the Angel of the Agony.

The performance had all of the Bach Choir’s attention to detail – such as way the first choral entry melted imperceptibly into the musical texture, or the explosive charge given to the opening of ‘Praise to the Holiest’. It made all thoughts of time and chairs dissolve.

Yorkshire Post – 28 February 2014
Choral Music by Vieme and Langlais
Choir of Southwell Minster
Regent Records: REGCD425

Why would Southwell Minster choir travel to Normandy to record the double organ masses of Vierne and Langlais? The answer becomes plain in the first bar: Sées Cathedral has two fine Cavaillé-Coll organs enhanced by a rich acoustic. Add to that crisp, vibrant singing from the choir under Paul Hale and commanding organ playing by Simon Hogan and Hilary Punnett and the result is extraordinary.

Nottingham Post – 18 November 2013 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra
Britten War Requiem

Just before the start of Saturday’s Bach Choir/NPO performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem there came a request for the audience to delay their applause at the end to allow a space for silent meditation. This was a sensible precaution, but such was the feeling of almost tangible grief generated by this fine performance that such advice was surely unnecessary. Britten’s music was written for the inauguration of Coventry’s new cathedral in 1962 and interweaves the traditional Latin requiem with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, perhaps the greatest of all First World War poets.

It is not an easy work to stage, as must have been apparent to anyone entering the Albert Hall on Saturday. Not only does the composer call for a huge symphony orchestra and chorus, but he also requires a separate chamber ensemble accompanying the soloists, two organs and a boys’ choir. This creates problems of balance and logistics especially when performers needed more space than audience. However, Paul Hale triumphed in his conducting of these remarkable forces. He was assisted by Mark Heron (chamber ensemble) and Simon Hogan conducting wonderfully pure-voiced boys from Southwell Minster at the back of the Hall.

There were so many highlights of this shatteringly moving concert: the choir’s whispered opening, the explosive Dies Irae, the NPO’s thrilling brass and percussion, the deeply felt performances of soloists Katherine Broderick, Thomas Walker and Benjamin Appl, the crisp diction and rhythmic bite of the Bach Choir.

No wonder there was silence at the end.

Letter from composer Andrew Carter
after Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra concert, 18 November 2012
Rutter Requiem; Chilcott Credo; Carter Laudate Dominum

I came away from Sunday’s concert with great admiration for your work. The Bach Choir is a very polished instrument and was supported by fine players. None of this happens with a duffer on the podium: it is the result of many seasons of dedicated and imaginative input from a fine musician, who is also an inspiring conductor.

Many thanks for including my Laudate Dominum in your programme. It was a delight to hear it so excellently interpreted by all. Please convey my warm congratulations to the singers (and players) for a thoroughly satisfying performance of all three works.

Nottingham Post – 18 November 2012 – critic William Ruff
Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra
Rutter Requiem; Chilcott Credo; Carter Laudate Dominum

The Bach Choir advertised that this was a concert to warm their listeners’ hearts on a November evening. Granted that their audience had a sweet tooth, then the menu on Sunday was bound to please – with works by some of the most tuneful of contemporary British composers on offer.

Composer John Rutter has an enviable melodic gift and a strong grasp of effective choral textures. Conductor Paul Hale, Nicki Kennedy the pure-voiced soloist, choir and orchestra all knew how to let the light shine through the gracious, fluent, haunting melodies of Rutter’s Requiem, letting the music speak for itself and refraining from self-indulgent schmaltziness – concentrating instead on fidelity to the nuances of the score. There was joy in the Sanctus, dark drama in the Agnus Dei and a touching simplicity in the Pie Jesu.

Andrew Carter is another composer who understands his singers. His Laudate Dominum conjured up a rich tapestry of sonorities in another highly tuneful work of eight contrasted movements permeated by a sense of joy and vividly colourful choral sound.

Bob Chilcott has lived and breathed choral music since childhood; the Bach Choir made his Credo an intense outpouring of faith whose moods ranged from serious to jazzy.

Newark & Southwell Advertiser
Nottingham Bach Choir, Elgar The Kingdom, March 2011

All these forces were as a single entity through the conducting of Paul Hale, whose training of the choir resulted in a confident and emotive reading of the score.

Church Times – 10 December 2010 – critic Roderick Dunnett
Nottingham Bach Choir & Orchestra
Bach Christmas Oratorio – 20 November 2010

The glorious rhythmic assurance with which Iauchzet, frohlocket, the opening chorus of Bach’s 1734 Christmas Oratorio, burst upon the audience in the enabling acoustic of St Mary’s, Nottingham, suggested that here, perhaps, was a choral society of outstanding quality. Indeed, every contribution the Nottingham Bach Choir made from then on confirmed that this was the case. Here was a large chorus in which all four voices were strong, fine-tuned, and capable of delivering even dauntingly exposed leads with confidence and finesse.

One of the most pleasing factors was the way in which the conductor, Paul Hale, organist of Southwell Minster, achieved perfectly judged ritenuti time and again from his soloists, from an attentive orchestra, and from the whole choir. Hale’s pacings felt constantly right: for the words, for Bach’s music, and for the forces employed. Even where the music suddenly hotted up, as at the chorus’s Ehre sei Gott (‘Glory to God in the highest’), all voices proved reliable and alert.

This performance, rich in musical imagination, embraced Parts 1 to 3 and Part 6 of the half-dozen cantatas that Bach welded together… Thanks not least to some faultless trumpets and haunting oboe-playing in the pastoral sequence of Part 2, this thoughtful, spirited performance proved truly fine and memorable.