A Superb Performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart

United StatesUnited States Bach: Regula Mühlemann (soprano), Roxana Constantinescu (contralto), Benedikt Kristjansson (tenor), Jakob Pilgram (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, Gächinger Kantorei, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart / Hans-Christoph Rademann (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 18.4.2017. (DD)

Bach – Mass in B minor

There is probably no figure in classical music who has more compositions that vie for the title of “greatest” than Johann Sebastian Bach. But in an oeuvre that includes contenders in a variety of designations (keyboard variations, solo violin partitas, harpsichord suites, concertos of all stripes, motets, catalog compilations of up to 48 individual pieces and an incomplete group of cantatas that boggles the imagination), the argument for greatest usually comes down to a choice between two works: the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor.

And for good reason. Both are comprehensive works that define the Baroque style with its rich capacity and potential depth of expression. While one of the two might perhaps lean slightly towards the human aspects of belief and redemption, the other veers more to the cerebral. As with all the encyclopedic works of Bach, the range of emotion,  intellectual depth and mastery of technique are miraculous in and of themselves.

The Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart’s chorus, instrumentalists, and soloists made an exceptionally strong case for the Mass in B minor in a period instrument performance at Disney Hall. The orchestra, which performs under the name Gächinger Kantorei when paired with the superb Bach-Collegium Stuttgart choir, was led by Hans-Christoph Rademann, who assumed the position of Director in 2013. Rademann danced on the podium with swoops and scoops, broad strokes and precise pin-pricks, underscoring the importance of the flow of sound, yet honoring the style conventions of the era from whence the music comes. (The first live performance I heard, well over three decades ago in a large San Francisco church, had a full-sized symphonic orchestra, a smaller, secondary instrumental ensemble with soloists, all using modern instruments, three choruses, full modern pipe organ and soloists, proving the theoretical conundrum that one can go back by going forward…and its inverse!)

The drama begins not with the intonation of the first words, ‘Ky-ri-e, Ky-ri-e, Ky-ri-e e-le-i-son’, but rather the even more dramatic 30-plus voices of the chorus inhaling the breath that powers that opening. The breathy pickup and these opening four measures of music, a blend of the homophonic and polyphonic, with the second word, ‘eleison’, spread-out in staggered entries, lead the chorus to a dramatic but unresolved harmonic half-ending. This opening salvo sets the stage for more than two hours of musical drama, which is only truly resolved with the Mass’s final chorus, ‘Dona nobis pacem’.

The entirety of the Mass, itself separated into two large sections with each of these further subdivided, takes the listener through an unparalleled emotional and intellectual journey. The opening Kyrie is a five-voice fugue, one section of singers following another, with the power of each successive voice laudably understated, a process that gave the final entry of the basses an awe-inspiring presence. A sweet operatic quality marks the following Christe movement, which features two sopranos. Then the second Kyrie concludes with one of Bach’s more chromatic and arresting fugue subjects, a striking motivic idea that circles around the F-sharp key tone with two other tones only a half step away from this tonal center, and this is repeated in an ascending sequence of choral voices. The originality of each entry is clear to listeners and gives every section its piercing presence. This is high drama indeed.

Several of the orchestra members deserve special mention. Concertmistress Mayumi Hirasaki was a consummate leader from within the orchestra, alternately the perfect soloist (and at one point, one of two violin soloists!) and inconspicuous section player. The flute solos of Georges Barthel, especially in the obbligato in the Domine Deus section, were paragons of taste and refinement, and oboist Katharina Arfken brought her own reedy presence — was that circular breathing I perceived in the ‘Qui sedes’? — a presence that contained a few rare moments of wit and humor. That aforementioned wit and humor may have been stolen from the unsung heroes of the woodwinds section: bassoonists Katrin Lazar and Tomasz Wesolowski, who often kept the harmony grounded and the motion moving. Bach once famously had a run-in with a bassoonist; I’m confident he would have liked these two. From top to bottom, pitchwise and otherwise, the Gächinger Kantorei was a model of strength, support, sensitivity and delicacy.

The presence of the extraordinary Christine Kessler at the organ was both a joy to hear and a spectacle to behold: she was always fully immersed in the playing (which was flawless and without respite), and acted as a kind of musical axis, surrounded by chorus, instrumentalists, a sometimes wildly gesticulating conductor and a quartet of statuesque soloists. Amid all this action, the calm and collected Ms Kessler stayed the course.

The extraordinary — and extraordinarily difficult — valveless horn solo was heroically performed by Ulrich Hübner. It is an impossibly demanding request from the composer but was pulled off with élan. My seat allowed me to clearly see members of the chorus with their collective attention fixed on the horn player; at the end of the solo, several singers smiled and nodded in his direction. I joined in with them.

And I would be remiss not to again cite the closely knit but open structure created by Maestro Rademann, who beautifully captured the score’s beautiful sonorities and painful dissonances, with the tragedy and occasional joyous humor that animate this score.

The Mass in B minor is the summation of a lifelong trajectory that incorporates much of the sometimes differing styles that define Bach’s works. In the Agnus Dei, the penultimate section of the Mass, an alto solo sung by Roxana Constantinescu drew the emotive depth of this composition to its furthest limits by not emphasizing those moments, but by letting Bach’s tones speak unadorned for themselves. The subtle reserve of Director Rademann allowed the music to speak the language imbued by its composer.

Words from a favorite G. M. Hopkins poem, ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing’, kept bobbing into my consciousness. I didn’t know who or what I was thinking about: Bach? the performers? the text? the Hall? the whole shebang? But somehow it sat both sadly and comfortingly in my mind, as the Mass bled into the stirring, final, triumphant chorus of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. The audience seemed to share that emotional range as a true and genuine musical summation: the applause that followed the final chord (which was first followed by a blessed moment of silence) grew louder and more ardent over the four minutes and 52 seconds it lasted. Clapping at the end of a sacred masterpiece might strike some as profane at best, heretical at worst; here it seemed the only possible response.  

Douglas Dutton

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