Stephen Layton Preserves the Balance and Sense of Unity in the B Minor Mass

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach: Katherine Watson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton (conductor), St John’s, Smith Square, London, 22.12.2015. (AS)

Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV232

The presence of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on the stage gave two indications about the music we were about to hear – that instrumental excellence could be taken for granted, and that it would be a “period” performance. Only the first was true. The college choir was sizeable, numbering over 40 singers. Though the choir lacked the ultimate virtues in terms of tonal lustre, its voices were appealingly young and fresh, ensemble was good and intonation accurate. What the choir lacked was the knife-edge precision of latter day choral groups. This was due partly to the youth and inexperience of the singers, no doubt, but also partly due to the nature of Stephen Layton’s beat, which though expressive, is not conducive to obtaining sharp attack.

There was therefore a slightly old-fashioned quality about the style of performance, underlined by Layton’s choice of tempi, which, thank goodness, were never hurried, as they are so often these days in music of this period. In fact every tempo seemed just right to me, and though there was plenty of rhythmic impetus, the music was always given time to breathe and it was thus allowed to yield its natural expressive qualities.

Nominally there should be two solo sopranos, who have a duet in the second number of the work, “Christe eleison”, but there was only one, Katherine Watson, who thus had the lion’s share of the solo work, and whose generally sound technique and clear, warm tones suited her part (or parts) well. In “Christe eleison” she was joined by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, who was slightly overshadowed at this point, but who sang beautifully and expressively in his two solos. The tenor, Gwilym Bowen, has a voice and style that is very much in the English tradition. His tone quality is not opulent, but in his one solo and one duet with soprano he did all that was required.

The bass, Neal Davies, had more of a struggle. Though described on this occasion as a bass, he is normally billed as a bass-baritone, and the low notes in his first solo, “Quoniam tu solus” clearly presented some difficulty, and he was unable sufficiently to project his voice or cope with the music’s technical demands. Here the limelight was seized by Ursula Paludan Monberg, who performed remarkably assured and virtuoso feats on what must be a most intractable instrument, the corno di caccia, or hunting horn. In Davies’s second solo, “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”, the singer sounded more at ease in music that is more baritonal in range, but his delivery was still unsteady and doubtful in intonation.

It was a pleasing gesture on Layton’s part that in the “Benedictus”, scored for tenor, solo flute and chamber organ, he just stood aside, and let the singer sing and the two players play without any direction. As a whole, though, his conduct of the work was very satisfying in the way he preserved its balance and sense of unity.

Alan Sanders    

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