This Bach B minor Mass is arguably VOCES8’s finest achievement to date

United KingdomUnited Kingdom LIVE From London Spring – Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232: Carolyn Sampson, Eleonore Cockerham (sopranos), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Rachel Podger (guest leader). Academy of Ancient Music / Barnaby Smith (conductor). Church of St Bartholomew the Great, London, 4.2.2021, and streamed 5.4.2021. (CC)

Bach’s B minor Mass in London’s Church of St Bartholomew the Great
(c) Colin Steen

Streamed on Easter Day, this 41st LIVE from London concert was an appropriately grand affair. Set in the beautiful Church of St Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest parish church (founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123). VOCES8 became ‘VOCES15’, three to a part (three each for Soprano I and II). Soloists participated in choruses.

The use of a professional chamber choir lent the Kyrie, taken at what felt like the perfect tempo by Barnaby Smith, a moving yet devotional air; it was blessed by a preternatural transparency of texture. The Christe, a duet for two sopranos, featured Carolyn Sampson with ex-VOCES8 member Eleonore Cockerham, placed at opposing sides to the conductor, voices blending beautifully, an absolute meeting of equals, obbligato violins perfectly together, the bass lines wonderfully buoyant. Balm for the soul; the return of the Kyrie text all the more dolorous and heavy in contrast.

That clarity of texture suffused the Gloria, crowned by the trumpets of David Blackadder, Philip Bainbridge and Matthew Wells (trumpets and drums positioned behind the conductor); this radiant clarity was a defining factor of the choruses, with ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ shaded with a miraculous attunement to the harmonic terrain. Hearing the soloists blend so extraordinarily well in the ‘Et in terra pax’ was testament to the excellence here.

It was Carolyn Sampson who sang ‘Laudamus te,’ the glorious soprano section with Rachael Podger’s fabulous violin obbligato (a voice in and of itself); Sampson shone, as she always does, but I was surprised to see her singing this as it is marked ‘Soprano II’, so surely it should have been Cockerham? The combination of Sampson and Podger was Baroque dynamite, in fairness, Sampson’s full, agile soprano against Podger’s supreme understanding of Bach’s writing.

Lovely to hear such eloquent obbligato flutes (Rachel Brown and Marta Goncalves) for the soprano and tenor duet ‘Domine Deus, Rex coelestis’ (Sampson and Jeremy Budd, tenor), a real conversation of lines before the heavier ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. The oboe d’amore of ‘Qui sedes,’ beautifully played by Mark Baigent (who also illuminated the bass ‘Et in spiritum Sanctum Dominum,’ there alongside Lars Henriksson) was matched by the extraordinary Iestyn Davies, voice as laser-focused as ever (later, his final ‘Agnus Dei’ was astonishingly touching; and how superbly paced this was by Smith, the low, almost smoky strings unforgettable).

The most extraordinary horn solo by Gavin Edwards, including a fabulously even lip trill, was astonishingly bold (as brass, some might say), accurate, and the perfect counterpart to Matthew Brook’s ‘Quoniam’. Congratulations to all, also, for allowing the bassoon lines to speak so clearly, too. Brook’s long sequences of semiquavers were brilliantly articulated; VOCES8 offered a veritable blaze of light in the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’.

The ‘Symbolum Nicenum’, begins with the Mixolydian flavoured ‘Credo’ before blossoming into the fuller form (‘Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem’); good to hear the difference in harmonic areas here. Personally, I cannot imagine a finer meeting of voices than Sampson’s and Davies’s in the Duetto, ‘Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum’.

Some scholars have argued that the ‘Et incarnatus est’ was Bach’s last significant composition. Certainly, it exudes a dark radiance, an enshrouded glow underpinned by gestures in the strings that seem particularly laden, an atmosphere that bleeds into the ‘Crucifixus’. Hearing the chorus at full tilt in ‘Et resurrexit’, emblazoned with trumpets, captured the inherent joy that is also inherent in the Jesus myth of rising again.

Matthew Brook shone in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum.’ Jeremy Budd’s ‘Benedictus’ was notable for the magnificent freedom of his voice, a simply beautiful sound.

How beautifully Smith managed the harmonic/timbral shift from the ‘Confiteor’ to ‘Et expecto,’ both choral movements but highly contrastive; and how gloriously bright the choral ‘Sanctus’ emerged. Perhaps Smith’s finest movement was saved for last, the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ whose lines drooped delicately, poignantly.

The soloists may be familiar from the VOCES8 Messiah; some participated in LIVE From London Christmas’s Weihnachtsoratorium with the Gabrieli Consort and Players. Come Eastertide, they shone once more in this Bach B minor Mass, arguably VOCES8’s finest achievement to date.

Colin Clarke

For more about VOCES8 LIVE From London Spring click here.

Leave a Comment