Expert Performance of Mass in B Minor from Bach Collegium Japan

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach: Rachel Nicholls, Joanne Lunn (sopranos), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Colin Blaze (tenor), Dominik Wörner (bass-baritone), Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki (conductor),  Barbican Hall, London, 9.04.2016. (GD)

J.S. Bach: Mass in B Minor

This was the first part of a highly concentrated two day visit from Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan focusing on the music of J.S. Bach. The opening vast ‘Kyrie’ of the B minor Mass had plenty of sustained movement but never sounded rushed. I was impressed with the clarity Suzuki achieved here and indeed throughout. In the sixth choral entry on the theme of the opening ritornello the tonal transitions from F sharp minor to C sharp minor were clearly delineated. As in Suzuki’s highly regarded recordings of the Cantatas the Bach Collegium choir (18-strong tonight) were wonderfully balanced in every tonal/expressive register. The articulation of the word ‘Kyrie’ was delivered staccato style as Ky-ri-e, which I found initially mannered, but it seemed to make sense in the context of whole interpretive design. The Italianate sounding ‘Christe eleison’ duet flowed beautifully with eloquent singing from sopranos Rachel Nicholls and Joanne Lunn. The second ‘Kyrie’ in F sharp minor was played in a direct manner with a clarity which alluded to the choral cross-overs found in the subtleties of style of Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso.

Most of the D major ‘Gloria’ went well with very effective ‘period’ trumpets and drums. The transition to ‘Et in terra pax’ went well, although I missed the shift to a mysterious sotto voce which Klemperer used to understand so well. Lunn’s radiant tone in the ‘Laudamus te’ was inflected by a stylish violin obbligato. The ‘Gratias’ (a transcription from the first chorus of the Cantata ‘Wir danken dir Gott’ BWV 29) had the same accumulative forward projection as the opening ‘Kyrie’. Here Suzuki wisely reserved the full splendour of this movement for the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ which deploys the same music at the end of the Mass. Of the remaining movements of the ‘Gloria’ special praise  must be accorded to  the four-part chorus in B minor ‘Qui tollis’ which conveyed a sense of mystery and pathos with beautiful flute figurations; this is transposed from the D minor of the first movement of the Cantata ‘Schauet doch und sehet’ (BWV 46). Also the ‘Quoniam’ for Bass, with horn and bassoons revealed the fine vocal qualities of Dominik Wörner. The period horn with its more plangent tone in the upper register was in contrast to the more sonorous bass register of the modern valved horn. The concluding D major ‘Cum Sancto Spirito’ (taken from Cantata BWV 191 ‘Gloria in Excelsis’, as with the main ‘Gloria’), which is sometimes rushed in ‘period’ performances, was taken at a more steady tempo, corresponding to more choral/instrumental clarity, with no loss of cutting energy and jubilation.

Most of the ‘Credo’ (Symbolum Nicenum) went well. The great opening 5-part mixolydian fugue again was superbly balanced with just the right sense of resolute, forward motion, although I did have to strain my ears to discern the accompanying string figurations. Soprano and alto complemented each other well in the ‘Et in Unum Dominum’, although I can’t forget Giebel and Baker here in the Klemperer recording. Both the ‘Et incarnates est’ in B minor and the ‘Crucifixus’ in E minor (from Cantata ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen’ BWV 12) were sensitively played, but at times some of the ‘mystery’ was lacking. The D major brilliance of the ‘Et resurrexit’ made a jubilant contrast. The great six-part ‘Sanctus’, again in D major, sounded brilliant rather than monumental; I didn’t hear Tovey’s characterisation of Bach ‘conducting the angelic hosts’! Again, Klemperer is far more impressive here.  The D major ‘Hosanna’ was inflected with buoyant rhythms, trumpets and drums, but overall it was a little four-square, something avoided by other ‘period’ performances from Harnoncourt and Jacobs. Colin Blazer’s tenor in the B minor ‘Benedictus’ had a welcome flexibility and sonority of tone which matched well the flute obbligato. The ‘Agnus dei’, transcribed from Cantata ‘Lobet Gott in Seinen reichen’ BWV 11 in G minor, was excellently sung/phrased by countertenor Robin Blaze who achieved an impressive dialogue with the conductor. The final chorus ‘Dona nobis pacem’ deploys the same music from the ‘Gratias’ but it never sounds second-hand in any way. I can’t imagine another coda for Bach’s great work in honour of Divine Glory. As implied above Suzuki reserved that extra degree of resplendent jubilation for the resolute closing bars.

This Bach B minor Mass was in many ways difficult to fault in terms of accuracy and devotion from all involved. But as noted I found an extra degree of imagination and insight from the likes of Harnoncourt and Jacobs – also, from a non-period performance, Klemperer, especially in terms of grandeur and depth. But I will probably be perceived as a dinosaur for mixing this ‘old-timer’ with the scholarly certainties of ‘period’ performance practice.

Geoff Diggines


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