Friday 3 August 2012

Thoughts on last night's Prom - Bach's Mass in B minor

Dresden Hofkirche
To a packed Royal Albert Hall last night for Bach's Mass in B Minor from the English Concert with Harry Bicket. Now, the last time the work was performed at the Proms, in 2004, it was John Eliot Gardiner and since the mid-1970's all performances of the work at the Proms have been period performances. Why? I'm a committed lover of period performance practice and my favourite performances of the work are those with just one singer to a part. But in a festival like the Proms, surely there is room for everything. Couldn't we have Sir Colin Davis conducting the piece with modern forces. Sir Colin is one of the most spiritual conductors around and to hear him conduct the piece would, I think, be quite something.

When Bach wrote the work he almost certainly assumed that, whatever forces performed it, the soloists would come from the choir; even if given by the choir in the Hofkirche in Dresden (Bach sent the Kyrie and Gloria to Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony) So there are five soloists, one of each kind (soprano 1, soprano 2, alto, tenor, bass). This rather leaves the poor second soprano like a wall-flower. She has two duets in the first half and then nothing. At last night's performance Carolyn Sampson sat elegantly through the second half, doing nothing but looking radiant. Can't someone find a solution? Are there no female mezzo-sopranos who could sing both the alto part and the second soprano part? (but that would have meant missing out on Iestyn Davies' moving performance).

And where should the soloists be? In such a work, which is very much an ensemble piece, with lots for the choir to do. Is it really right that they sit in a row in front of the orchestra. The mass in B minor is not a work, like an oratorio, where the most important roles are the solo ones. Couldn't a way have been found to have the soloists in front of the choir. Certainly not at the side of the stage with all the walking back and forth that this entails. Answers please!

When listening to Ed Lyon floating the tenor line so beautifully in the Benedictus I recalled a treasured recording that I have, on vinyl. Of Walter Widdop singing the same movement, recorded before the war. Widdop was one of England's greatest Wagner tenors, on of the few English singers of his generation to have an international career. But, common to singers of his period, he ran his operatic career in parallel with his oratorio one so that he thought nothing of singing Bach, Handel and Wagner. A friend of mine used to tell a delightful, but apocryphal story of how a man met Widdop on the train the day after the tenor had given a fine performance in Wagner at Covent Garden. On being complimented Widdop (who was a Northerner) turned to the man and said that he was going 'ome to sing some proper music, 'Andel. Probably not true, but is sounds right.

No kind person seems to have uploaded Widdop's Benedictus onto Youtube, but there is a recording of him singing the Domine Deus with Elisabeth Schumann. Do listen and try to imagine how many modern Siegfrieds could manage it.

The compiler of the Proms programme book seems to have been having an interesting day, the illustrations (all large) seemed to have only a tangential bearing on the work; Albert Schweitzer and Hans Georg Naglei (the work's first publisher) and Friedrich August II of Saxony (to whom Bach sent the Kyrie and Gloria). I wouldn't mind, but the whole one-voice to a part issue was relegated to the 'Further Listening and Reading' section. I wouldn't mind, but in a performance which claims to use period performance practice, of a work in which a case can be made for Bach not thinking of it as a choral work? Surely we would to have a paragraph about the pros and cons.

My full review of the performance is on the website

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