John Butt and the BBCSO Struggle to Reach Bach’s Musical Summit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom JS Bach, Mass in B minor: Joanne Lunn (soprano), Mary Bevan (soprano), Alex Potter (countertenor), Samuel Boden (tenor), Edward Grint (bass-baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus, (director: Neil Ferris), BBC Symphony Orchestra / John Butt (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 2.2.2019. (CSa)

‘This is what I have to say about Bach’ advised Albert Einstein ,’Listen, play, love, revere…and keep your trap shut.’ One wonders, then, what Einstein would have said about this performance of JS Bach’s Mass in B minor. This featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Chorus under conductor, leading Bach interpreter, and scholar John Butt?

Hailed by its first publisher Hans Georg Nägeli as ‘The greatest musical work of art of all times and nations’, the Mass in B minor was derived in part from earlier pieces composed over 25 years of the composer’s life, and ingeniously fitted together into a glorious and monumental whole. It represents the summit of Bach’s skills as a composer. Combining exquisite solo instruments, individual voices, mighty choruses, delicate chamber ensembles, and the full forces of an orchestra, it is both a liturgical Catholic work in the Western musical tradition. It is also a deeply spiritual experience which defies the boundaries of religion, time and place. Highly complex, it places huge technical and artistic demands on the performers.

There have been many interpretations and styles of performing this masterpiece. At one extreme, there is the lithe minimalist approach innovated by Joshua Rifkin and adopted by Butt in his acclaimed recording of the work with the Dunedin Consort in 2010. In that version he used ten singers – five soloists and five additional singers added or subtracted in response to the finely changing textures of the choruses – and an orchestra of just 19 players. At the other extreme, is what one might describe as the traditional full bodied ‘Huddersfield Choral Society’ approach – five soloists, a large orchestra of modern instruments and an even larger choir. On Saturday night Butt went for the latter – five top singers, an orchestra of 48 professional players and an amateur choir of 150. The inevitable result was an imbalance between a vibrant collaboration of soloists and instrumentalists on the one hand, and a sluggish, cumbersome chorus in which the agility and vitality to which we have become accustomed in smaller scale performances were entirely lacking.

There were nonetheless some nuggets of pure gold. In the Part I Missa, after a glacially slow opening Kyrie, came a briskly paced Christe eleison gloriously sung by sopranos Joanne Lunn and Mary Bevan, their pure voices delicately intertwined. Bevan shone too in a gracefully articulated Laudamus te, dexterously accompanied on the violin by the BBCSO’s leader Igor Yuzefovich, whilst silver toned tenor Sam Boden combined with Joanne Lunn and an artfully woven flute obbligato to give us a gossamer light yet deeply moving Domine deus.  

More highlights were provided by counter tenor Alex Potter. Potter, who is blessed with a rich, almost stentorian voice, but whose Qui sedes ad dexteram was delivered with supreme control and crystalline purity. In the Missa’s last aria before the mighty Cum Sancto Spiritu, Bass-baritone Edward Grint, joined by horn player Martin Owen, gave a sonorous and perfectly paced account of Et in Spiritum Sanctum.

While the chorus struggled on the high notes in a lumbering rendition of the Credo in Part II, spirits and pace were quickly revived by the sprightly duet Et in unum Dominum sung with sinuous beauty by the well-matched Lunn and Potter.

Boden’s lyrical and beautifully phrased Benedictus was a tonic after a slow and rather heavy-handed Sanctus from the chorus, and Potter’s Agnus Dei was sung with gentle ardour. But ultimately, neither soloists nor orchestra could rescue a chorus so overburdened by numbers, as they struggled to ascend Bach’s musical summit.

Chris Sallon

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