Dynamism and Zest in Cummings’ B minor Mass

SwitzerlandSwitzerland J.S. Bach: Musikkollegium Winterthur, Laurence Cummings (conductor), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Christina Daletska (mezzosoprano/alto), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Lisandro Abadie (bass), Ensemble Corund (chorus-master: Stephen Smith) Stadthaus,  Winterthur 10.11.2016. (JR)

J.S. Bach – Mass in B minor

Winterthur is Switzerland’s sixth largest town, by population, yet only just over 100,000 inhabitants. It has some substantial but light industry and is best known perhaps as the home of its eponymous insurance company, now called Axa Winterthur. The town is financially very comfortable, only 18 minutes by rail from Zurich and less to Zurich Airport. It has a thriving musical scene based around the city’s excellent orchestra, the Musikkollegium, founded as long ago as 1629. With 50 professional players, it is one of Switzerland’s top ten orchestras. Their new Chief Conductor is Thomas Zehetmair of Royal Northern Sinfonia fame. Regular soloists and conductors also include Martin Helmchen, András Schiff, Christian Tetzlaff, Isabelle Faust, Heinz Holliger, Michael Sanderling, Fazil Say and Sol Gabetta.

The orchestra’s amusingly titled “Artist in Resonance” this season is no less than Ian Bostridge who will be giving a number of concerts in the town later in the season. I will be reviewing some of them for Seen and Heard.

Bach’s B minor Mass needs no introduction, so I won’t give it one. Laurence Cummings is a renowned baroque specialist (he has been Head of Historical Performance at the Royal Academy of Music for the last twenty years, though probably better known for his love of Handel than of Bach) and he led from the harpsichord with occasional glimpses of a resplendent turquoise waistcoat. He had assembled a fine quartet of soloists without weaknesses, two from Britain, Lucy Crowe and Nicholas Mulroy, both big names in this repertoire. Less known were Christina Daletska, originally from the Ukraine and with an amazing long mane of hair, and Argentinian bass Lisandro Abadie.

The Corund Ensemble is a small professional choir, based in Lucerne, and trained by American Stephen Smith. They too are specialists in the baroque, putting on almost annual local performances of the Messiah around Christmas time and St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday. The singers are mostly youthful and their enthusiasm and virtuosity evident and audible throughout.

We are having to get used to smaller scale Bach these days. I last saw a St. Matthew Passion with a chorus of about eight; the Corund Ensemble were large in comparison – I counted twenty-eight singers, 5 first sopranos, 5 second sopranos, six altos (including one male alto), six tenors and six basses. The chief advantage of smaller numbers is, of course, absolute precision but the main downside is the lack of volume, which I miss at various times in this work. That matters less in a hall the size of the Stadthaus, which doubles as the Town Hall. It’s about half the size of the Tonhalle in Zürich, in itself not a large hall. I still thrill to a wall of sound from time to time in almost any choral work – even if not historically correct.

This was an extremely dynamic rendition of the Mass. Repeats were cut. The chorus mostly kept up with Cumming’s lightning speeds, though the sopranos were on occasion surprised by his opening attacks. There was hardly time to breathe between “movements”. Rhythmic pulse, forward propulsion and zest were never in doubt; the Crucifixus was particularly well executed (excuse the pun).  Crowe and Daletska blended beautifully, Crowe’s upper register gleamed above the stave, Daletska the more expressive, especially in the Agnus Dei. Mulroy is visibly more at home in the Matthew Passion, but his contributions were always of the highest standard. I had not heard of the bass before but will remember his name – “Et in spiritum sanctum” turned out to be the hit number of the night.

The orchestra impressed, particularly the Spanish leader, Roberto González Monjas whose instrument stood head and shoulders above the rest. No surprise then to read it’s a Guarneri dating to about 1703 and lent to him by wealthy local families and a Foundation. Monjas has led the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, The Verbier Festival Orchestra and the Philharmonia. The baroque woodwind fared well, one fluff from the principal horn apart; the brass was top notch. The seating in the hall is not raked, the orchestra hardly tiered, so it was impossible for all those in the Stalls to see past the first row of violins, a pity when listening to woodwind solos. Gardiner overcame that difficulty at the Tonhalle by having the soloists either stand or come to the front of the stage, a practice to be applauded.

Sadly, Winterthur’s audience, on a very wet wintry evening, displayed the identical age problem to that of the Tonhalle in Zurich.  Bach is no Leonard Cohen (whose death has sadly just been annouced) or Adele but management must be concerned by the age profile of its punters. It should make a start by making the orchestral members more visible.

John Rhodes

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