Mass in B Minor Wraps Up “Bach Unwrapped”

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Malin Christensson (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), William Towers (counter-tenor), Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Benedict Nelson (baritone), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (director of music: Graham Ross), Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 21.12.2013 (MB)

Mass in B minor, BWV 232

And so, Kings Place’s year-long series, ‘Bach Unwrapped’, came to a close with one of the towering masterpieces of Western civilisation, the B minor Mass. The St Matthew Passion may – somehow – be greater still, at least for some of us, but choosing between them is akin to choosing between Tristan and Parsifal. It was a salutary experience to be reminded that this was the first performance of Bach’s mass I had attended since starting to review. I am not sure that they are very thick on the ground in any case, but for those of us not swayed by the claims of ‘authenticity’, opportunities are few indeed. It is difficult not to feel at least a little angry about the monopolisation of the repertoire by those whom Adorno described as saying Bach but meaning Telemann. (The cynical marketing practices of the recording industry are more guilty still.) We still have the great recordings of the past, of course: those of musicians such as Klemperer, Jochum, Karl Richter, and – albeit all too few in number – Furtwängler. Yet other musicians have been frozen out, the late Sir Colin Davis having spoken with great regret that the fulminations of ‘specialists’ had made it all but impossible for him to conduct Bach any longer. (Imagine a B minor Mass from him!) Pierre Boulez foresaw and experienced what would come to pass a good few years earlier, saying:

There are six performable [orchestral] works by Bach: the Brandenburg Concertos! And I’ve done them, the Brandenburgs, in my career as a conductor. But even as I was making my way forward, until about 1978, the specialists were simultaneously taking over. They were starting to say, ‘If they’re not played in the true baroque manner, with baroque instruments, it’s useless to play them any other way.’ Then one isn’t going to play them at all.

Boulez also conducted a fair number of the cantatas, not that one would know from the airbrushed histories of Bach performance one encounters. Now we are subjected to competitions for the hairiest of hair shirts, the most meagre of forces (utterly disregarding Bach’s own 1730 memorandum to the Leipzig city authorities), and so on, with Bach’s music standing perilously close to the status Adorno also foretold of becoming unperformable.

It was, then, a particular joy to welcome a performance from the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon, with soloists and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. Not that Collon’s reading was untouched by ‘period’ influences; indeed, his tempi were often decidedly upon the brisk side. But there was real musicianship here on display both from the singers and the ever-impressive orchestra, which appeared far more concerned with performance, with communication, with the message of text and music, than with bogus concerns of ‘correctness’. The Clare Choir’s contribution stood pretty much beyond reproach. Of course, there remained something of an ‘English’ sound, which perhaps is not quite the best of matches, but there was more than enough compensation in the commitment and precision heard here. Bach’s counterpoint was throughout both audible and meaningful. There were times when greater weight might in principle have been desirable, but given that the performance took place in a small hall, those occasions were relatively few.

There was much to relish from the vocal soloists too. Malin Christensson’s delivery of her soprano arias was flawless, even when taken at breakneck speed, the ‘Laudamus te’ being the only case to my mind where the tempo moved from quick to absurd. (I felt equally for the leader and solo violin, Alexandra Wood; requisite grace was simply not possible when taken so quickly.) Jennifer Johnston proved a rich-toned mezzo: most welcome indeed. I was a little puzzled as to why we had a counter-tenor as well. To my ears, the voice sounds more appropriate to Handel than to Bach, but that, I think, is simply a matter of taste; however, it was not clear why we needed both. That said, William Towers did an excellent job, eminently flexible and with considerably greater vibrato than many would have expected. Joshua Ellicott was just as impressive, his account of the ‘Benedictus’ plangently moving, whilst never confusing that plangency with the abrasive. Benedict Nelson was somewhat dry of tone, but sang his arias with intelligence. (It is perhaps here that an additional soloist would have been better employed, given the difference in tessitura between the ‘Quoniam’ and ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum.’)

Though the violins, presumably acting upon instruction, were somewhat parsimonious with their vibrato – a problem not experienced from the rich-toned violas and cellos – the orchestra’s contribution was just as impressive. Woodwind and brass were excellent (for some reason, a modern horn was used but natural trumpets); I cannot recall a single solo that did not impress. Both chamber organ and harpsichord were employed as continuo instruments. Collon seemed for the most part quite happy to let the music speak ‘for itself’, if, as I said before, somewhat quickly, rather than making points about it. When more personal intervention was made, it could sometimes be a little fussy – for instance, slightly laboured articulation in the ‘Kyrie’ – but could also prove telling, as in the cumulative power of the ‘Crucifixus’. It may not have been Klemperer, but it had its own integrity.

Most importantly, we were never left in any doubt as to the stature of work – whatever the truth of its assemblage – and composer. As Furtwängler once wrote in an essay upon Bach, ‘historians sometimes wish to tell us that even a giant such as Bach, viewed in the context of his age … loses the superhuman quality we attach to him.’ However, the truth, as Furtwängler proceeded to argue, once again turned out to be quite the reverse, for never is the ‘astonishing superiority of Bach’s music clearer … than when one compares him with other composers of his time and environment,’ such as Vivaldi or Handel. If Furtwängler is perhaps a little harsh upon the latter, one nevertheless knows what he means when he describes Handel’s brilliance as seeming ‘strangely arbitrary, strangely capricious next to the quiet, unerring organisation consistent throughout Bach’s musical thought’. Let us be thankful that Bach is not yet quite lost to us.

Mark Berry