United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (5) Bach, Mass in B minor: Ruth Holton (soprano), Mhairi Lawson (soprano), William Towers (countertenor), Andrew Tortise (tenor), Ben Bevan (bass), Three Cathedral Choirs, Academy of Ancient Music / Peter Nardone (conductor), The Cathedral, Worcester, 29.7.2014. (RJ)
There is much speculation as to why that most Protestant of composers, J S Bach, should have composed a Catholic Mass. One of the most plausible is that he was keen to move on to new pastures – a new job, in other words. Just as in 1721 he had attempted to attract the interest of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt with a set of six concertos, in 1733 he sought an entree into the Saxon Court by presenting his famous Mass (or at least parts of it) to Augustus III of Saxony. (There is nothing unusual in this: if he had been living in the modern world he would no doubt submit sample tapes or CDs to drum up interest in his work.) But why a Catholic mass? The answer is simple. Although Saxony was predominantly Protestant, both Augustus and his father, Augustus the Strong, happened to be Kings of Poland as well – a position which required them to embrace the Catholic faith.
Whatever the reason, few will dispute that the Mass contains much of Bach’s best music, some of it recycled from earlier compositions which had found favour with the public. And in Worcester Cathedral, despite the afternoon heat, it was given the best of performances by the cathedral choirs of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester – professionals to a man or boy – supported by the superb Academy of Ancient Music with Peter Nardone, artistic director of the Festival, on the conductor’s rostrum.
After the choir’s majestic announcement of the first Kyrie a short orchestral interlude showed the musicians to be on tremendous form. The Christe Eleison offered much lighter touch after the fugal brilliance of the Kyrie with sopranos Ruth Holton and Mhairi Lawson proving a good match. The section ended with the final Kyrie full of archaic choral grandeur.
Trumpets ushered in the Gloria which came over as the most vibrant and varied section of the afternoon, and the choir introduced us to a heaven full of high spirits and dance followed by a more subdued Et in terra pax. Mhairi Lawson with her cherub-like countenance looked as if she meant every word of the Laudamus Te with a solo violin adding to the serenity of the passage. The Gratias agimus was slower and more serious in character with the choristers – the trebles, in particular – singing out their gratitude to the Almighty with fervour, embellished with a solo trumpet. The Academy of Ancient Music’s playing came to the fore in the Domine Deus, the ravishing flute and plucked lower strings giving an ethereal feel to Ruth Holton and Andrew Tortise’s duet. The choir’s singing of Qui tollis peccata was suitably impressive, after which countertenor William Towers gave a striking account of Qui sedes. The corno da caccia and twin bassoons produced some wonderful colour in the Quoniam which rather detracted from Ben Bevan’s slightly underpowered solo. A jaunty Cum spiritu sancto in all its contrapuntal magnificence rounded off the first half of the performance.
Given the ambient temperature in the Cathedral I would not have been surprised if some of the singers and musicians had decamped during the interval, but they all appeared to be in place for the Credo which harks back to ancient musical forms in its early stages. The choir created a fine feeling of mystery and reverence in the Et incarnatus est before expressing their deep sorrow in the Crucifixion passage. But the sorrowing was abruptly effaced by the joy of Resurrection, the trumpets once again leading the way. Ben Bevan came back to sing the lilting Et in spiritum to a lovely woodwind accompaniment. The Credo eventually built up to a great climax in which all the performers appeared to be looking forward to the next life with great exhilaration and confidence.
The rest of the Mass was no anti-climax after the two extended previous section, with good strident singing from the basses in the Sanctus. The Hosanna in excelsis for double choir, repeated after Andrew Tortise’s marvellous Benedictus, could not fail to make an impact. As the Mass drew to its conclusion with a heartfelt Agnus dei from William Towers and the glorious Dona nobis pacem one began to wonder if the sublime sounds were coming from the stage or from heaven itself. The capacity audience greeted the Mr Nardone, his hardworking choirs and musicians with rapturous and well deserved applause.
After their Herculean efforts I’m glad to record that the choirs were let off duties at Evensong that afternoon.