New York Philharmonic’s 17 Year Wait for Bach’s Mass in B Minor

United StatesUnited States Bach, Mass in B minor:New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City, 13.3.2013 (SSM)

Dorthea Röschmann, Soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano
Steve Davislim, Tenor
Eric Owens, Bass-Baritone
New York Choral Artists
Joseph Flummerfelt, Director

As Alan Gilbert states in his program notes, “We are at the tail end of a period in which Bach and other Baroque composers have become the almost exclusive domain of musicians who adhere to what is known as ‘historical performance practice.'” Indeed, for a masterwork such as the B-minor Mass to go through a seventeen-year hiatus before being performed again by the NYPO may speak volumes about the influence of the historically-informed movement. But what we are really talking about is nothing more than the continual changing of musical taste: each generation develops its own sensibility as to what is musically correct.

The first (albeit incomplete) New York performance of the Mass in B minor in 1828 used ninety-eight singers and sixty-eight musicians. Tastes change: by the late nineteenth century, performances with 200 or more vocalists were considered not big enough. The first complete performance in New York City, by the Oratorio Society in 1900, consisted of seventy-two instrumentalists and a chorus of 500 and was praised by The New York Times for being “in accordance with the tonal balance usual in Bach’s day.” Ten years later, Albert Schweitzer complained that, “Even with a choir of 150 voices, there is a danger of the lines of the vocal polyphony coming out too thickly and heavily in a way directly opposed to the nature of Bach’s music.” A similar debate existed over the issue of OVPP (one voice per part), an idea proposed and defended by Joshua Rifkin in the early 1980s. The praise heaped on a recent recording by the Dunedin Consort using Rifkin’s revised OVPP edition confirms that this approach is still alive and kicking. Gilbert and the NYPO were somewhere in the middle ground with a string section of thirty or so and a chorus of sixty. When the chorus was singing forte they sometimes overpowered the orchestra, but otherwise the two were well balanced. Considering the glowing reputation (and rightly so) of Anne Sofie von Otter, she seemed off her mark: her voice lacked her usual angelic heft. In the first duet with Dorthea Röschmann, “Christe eleison,” both singers were vocally on the same level. In the second duet, “Et in unum Dominum,” Ms. Röschmann soared while Ms. Otter stayed on the ground.

As it has done in the past with music of the Baroque, the orchestra took a mixed approach to the issue of vibrato. While there are debates as to its use, limited vibrato seems the right way for string players to perform the music of this period. Some NYPO musicians, such as cellist Carter Bray, clearly stayed away from vibrato. Violinist Glen Dicterow, on the other hand, moderated his use of vibrato when playing the obligatto violin arias but slipped back into the vibrato groove when not soloing.

Although the first half of the concert lacked instrumental timbre and vocal color, this changed in the second half with the resounding movements, “Patrem omnipotentem,” “Et resurrexit” and “Osanna in excelsis.” No one wrote more joyous, spine-tingling music than Bach, and Gilbert drew the best from both singers and instrumentalists. The members of the brass section, whose playing is so important for the success of these movements, ably handled their difficult scores.

Alan Gilbert continues to surprise with his fearless ability to successfully perform works normally reserved for specialists. From Bach to Beethoven to Bruckner, from Janáček to Ligeti and Lindberg, Gilbert successfully interprets them all, breathing new life into this very traditional institution.

Stan Metzger