Bach Mass Lacks Polish Because of Last Minute Substitutes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Mass in B minor: Lorna Anderson (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Stephan Loges (bass-baritone), SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Jonathan Cohen (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 12.12.2013 (SRT)

The B minor mass is one of the greatest works in western music, but this performance fell somewhat flat.  It was meant to be conducted by Richard Egarr, whose work with the SCO has been outstanding in the past, but he cancelled due to illness and was replaced by Jonathan Cohen at very short notice.  Cohen did the best he could under the circumstances but, either due to lack of time or not knowing the players, the evening lacked polish.

One of the problems was balancing the sound in the intimate acoustic of the Queen’s Hall.  During the great brass-led climaxes, such as the start and end of the Gloria, or the Et resurrexit, the martial sound of the orchestra had a tendency to drown out the chorus, and the chorus seemed raw and uncomfortable at the climaxes.  This improved as the evening went on, and the end of the Credo sequence was more of a success, but more time (or technique) should have ironed out those inconsistencies.  Furthermore, Cohen didn’t quite get the balance between the movements that were elided together; for example, moving from Gloria into Et in terra pax, the tempo for the slower section seemed to plod.  Likewise, the transition into Cum SanctoSpiritu bore the mark of a slightly jarring gear-change.

The chorus sounded very fine in the slower sections, especially the stately tread of both Kyries, and the great fugues built up with a steady sense of architecture and momentum.  Barring an embarrassing fluff at the start of the Credo, all the notes were there, but their tone seemed to lack confidence and polish, and under Gregory Batsleer I’ve heard them sound much better.

The orchestral playing was very fine, as usual, and the instrumental solos were all excellent, especially Sarah Sexton’s violin in Laudamus te and I loved the pair of chattering oboes at Et in Spiritum sanctum.  Stephan Loges (another stand-in) was the finest of the soloists, his warm, honeyed bass pouring balm over Bach’s melodic runs, and Kitty Whately brought similar warmth to the mezzo part.  Lorna Anderson’s was an authoritative, slightly matriarchal soprano sound, and Andrew Tortise’s tenor was bright if breathy, but his relentlessly sullen expression didn’t convince me of any of the joy in Bach’s vision.

All of which is to say that this evening was perfectly fine under the circumstances, but I really missed Egarr’s galvanising presence.

Simon Thompson 


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