United Kingdom Prom 63 – Bach, Mass in B minor: Katherine Watson (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor), André Morsch (baritone), Les Arts Florissants/William Christie (Conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London 1.9.2016. (RB)
The first publisher of Bach’s B minor Mass described it as, ‘The greatest musical work of art of all times and nations’. At the time many probably regarded the statement as hyperbole but nowadays there are very few people who would disagree. During the course of the 20th Century the approach to this work has changed dramatically: modern instruments and large choirs predominated in the early part of the century but from the 1960’s onwards there has been an increasing trend to use period instruments, smaller choirs and to observe period conventions. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are, of course, a period instrument ensemble who are primarily concerned with creating an authentic musical experience. As a group of Baroque instrumentalists they are second to none, but I was interested to see how they would cope with the acoustic problems of performing in the Royal Albert Hall.
This was only the second time Christie had conducted the B minor Mass and he indicated in the programme notes that it would be ‘an intensely personal interpretation’. The first thing to say it that he offered many fresh insights and there was much to admire in this performance. The instrumental ensemble was beautifully blended in the opening ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Christie’. Christie allowed the movement to unfold in a reflective, unhurried way, creating a wonderful feeling of space and revealing a wealth of detail. Many of his tempi were on the brisk side and the second ‘Kyrie’ with its pungent chromatic harmonies was a case in point. Christie produced a very lyrical and flowing interpretation of the movement which was unusual but which worked well and made me think of the music in a different way. The ‘Gratias agimus’ (repeated in the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’) was also very brisk but I was less convinced by this and would have preferred a slower, more gradual and sustained build up throughout the movement.
The high points of the performance were the ‘Et Incarnatus’, which was delivered by Les Arts Florissants with a hushed intensity, and the subsequent ‘Crucifixus’ which was dramatic and piercing. This was sublime music making of the highest order putting us in touch with the spiritual heart of the work and allowing us to commune with the divine. The high octane choruses were delivered with enormous energy and Christie did a brilliant job bringing out the rhythmic buoyancy and dance rhythms. I was particularly impressed with the way in which the brass was able to add brilliance and brightness to the textures while at the same time remaining an integral part of the orchestral fabric.
While much of the music making was of the highest order I could not help but feel that this was the wrong venue for this performance. Even with added microphones some of the vocal entries sounded faint and weak in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. This was particularly the case in the opening section of the first ‘Kyrie’ where some of the fugal entries were not as clear as they might be and in the ‘Et in Terra Pax’ where some of the entries sounded very faint. In some of the faster paced movements I would have liked a little more vocal heft and power and for a fuller sound from the strings. It must be extremely difficult to do that with these instrumental forces whilst remaining faithful to period style and convention. Given the obvious difficulties which period orchestras face in this venue, Christie and Les Arts Florissants probably did as well as could be expected. However, it does raise a question and a challenge about how period performers can better negotiate the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall.
The four soloists for the most part did a reasonably good job with their movements and they worked well with their instrumental accompaniments who stood beside them in front of the orchestra. Counter-tenor Tim Mead was the stand out performer and he sang his opening duet (‘Christie eleison’) with Katherine Watson beautifully and the final ‘Agnus Dei’ with a sublime purity of tone. Mead brought a wonderful range of colour to his subsequent duet with Watson (‘Et in unum Dominum’) and the two voices vied well with each’s colour to create some lovely interweaving of the vocal lines. Katherine Watson has the perfect voice for this music and she produced beautifully shaded and well-crafted vocal lines and a very clear, clean sound. Reinoud Van Mechelen was at his best in the duet ‘Domine Deus’ where he blended well with Watson to produce some exquisitely worked out sequences. I was less convinced by the ‘Benedictus’ which came across as a little superficial and sounded slightly mannered. André Morsch did not entirely convince in the ‘Quoniam’ which needed a more focused sound but he redeemed himself with the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ which was delivered with enormous lyricism and tonal beauty. The solo obbligatos were all excellent, and the flutes and oboes were particularly impressive in the ‘Domine Deus’ and the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’.
Overall, this was music making of the highest order, offering fresh and original insights on one of the greatest pieces of music every written. There clearly were problems with the acoustics but these were perhaps inevitable given the circumstances. I was left feeling I would very much like to hear the performance again in a slightly more intimate setting.