During the past few years, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra has presented annual Choral Masterpieces evenings, focusing on one particular work; on Thursday, as part of the orchestra's Premier series, vocal music by Bach and Arvo Part offered different perspectives on faith during three centuries.

On this occasion, we were given the jubilant Bach, setting off with his solo cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! (Exult in God in Every Land). There was joy abundant in soprano Sara Macliver's finely etched lines; whether duetting with Huw Dann's brilliant trumpet, or singing in a more reflective mode, her immaculately nuanced phrasing echoed by sensitive continuo accompaniment.

At the other end of the concert, Bach's glorious Magnificat enlisted full orchestral and choral forces to dispense its jubilation. Conductor Stephen Layton pitched the liveliest opening chorus I've ever heard, with a breathtaking orchestral blaze and the University of Auckland Chamber Choir in top form.

Five soloists did justice to some of the composer's loveliest arias, as well as joining forces for memorable ensembles. Tenor Andrew Goodwin put the mighty in their place with vibrant authority in his aria, while alto Helen Charlston sang movingly of feeding the hungry and denying the rich, set against the pearly tones of flutes and chamber organ.
Stephen Layton announced after interval that Arvo Part himself was listening to tonight's concert in Europe. An outburst of spontaneous applause must have pleased the Estonian composer but, in reality, it was a well-deserved mark of appreciation to the APO for making such cultural connections.


The conductor then gave us a taste of the radical Part with his 1964 Collage sur B-A-C-H. A central movement, in which Bede Hanley's idyllic sarabande melody was surrounded, but not overwhelmed, by clustering dissonance, had an impact live that recordings can only hint at.

For many, the major work of the evening was probably Part's 1990 Berlin Mass, a soberingly austere score, far removed from the High Baroque splendour of Bach.
The almost primal simplicity of the writing, which does have its detractors, was conveyed with real forcefulness by Layton, working from his own edition of the music. The young singers and the orchestral strings, following a succession of very specific performance instructions, moved from passion and fervour to soaring gently to the firmament itself, offering us 25 minutes of what can only be described as heaven on earth.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where: Auckland Town Hall
When: Thursday