Monday 23 December 2013

Bach Mass in B Minor at Kings Place

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
As the culmination of King's Place's year long exploration of Bach's music, Bach Unwrapped, there was a performance Bach's Mass in B Minor on Saturday 21 December 2013. The events of Bach Unwrapped not only explored Bach's music but different styles of performance. The Mass in B Minor was performed by the Aurora Orchestra (performing on modern instruments) and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge (director Graham Ross), conducted by Nicholas Collon with soloists Malin Christensson, Jennifer Johnson, William Towers, Joshua Ellicott and Benedict Nelson.

Though scholars postulate performances of Bach's Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass) and later of extracts from the full mass, we have no records and can only surmise the sorts of forces which Bach would have used. Joshua Rifkin has argued persuasively for performance one singer to a part, but this option does not appeal to everyone whilst being extraordinary taxing on the performers. Our modern tradition of performance of the work is linked to the baroque oratorio revival, so that the mass is performed with the sort of forces used in Handel's oratorios. Often on the basis of what it is presumed Bach would have used, if he had had the resources.

Whatever the forces used, for me there is an important moment in any performance of the mass which indicates whether the rationale used has been successful. In the first Kyrie, after the opening choral statement, there is a long instrumental fugue, to which the voices join. At this point it is important that the voices and instruments are equals, that the instrumentalists do not simply accompany the voices. Bach's writing here is multi-part, a texture mixing voices and instrument.

At Kings Place the stage was filled with the 29 instrumentalists of the Aurora Orchestra with the 32 singers from Clare College Choir placed on the balcony. Whether it was the relative numbers of the placing of the choir, I am not sure, but the choir had primacy; when singing they were dominant and the performance failed my key test.

If one accepted the modern balance favouring the choir on the basis that Bach's work is great enough to take multiple interpretation, there was another modernism about the performance. I wrote in my review of Friday's Messiah from Temple Church about the current tendency for choirs to sing Handel's choruses as fast as possible. Face with a crack Cambridge choir, this seems to have gone somewhat to Nicholas Collon's head. The choruses were, in the main, all taken at fast speeds, by and large with stunning results though things seemed to get slightly out of control in the Et resurrexit chorus in the Credo. Collon seemed to be more relaxed when it came to the solos, so that overall the performance did have its relaxed moments. Collon also performed the work like an oratorio in that he paused after movements, whilst I would have preferred the long multi-movement sections to have flowed continuously; something particularly true of the Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Osanna sequence.

That said, there was a great deal to enjoy in the performance. The choir were in stunning form, taking the faster passage-work  with a wonderful deftness, but also bringing a bright, focussed young tone to all the music and a remarkable attention to detail. Collon clearly liked to have the choral lines well pointed, and the choir was fully responsive with a remarkable attention to text  There were moments of ravishing tone, such as in the Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus. When Collon did relax the tempo, it made me wish he could have done so much more often.

The five soloists were all highly creditable and wonderfully complemented by the instrumental soloists for the Aurora Orchestra. Malin Christensson brought a very vivid attention to the text to her solos, making you feel as if she really meant it.  In the Christeand Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum Christensson and Jennifer Johnston made a lovely blend, with fluent technically assured runs, a nice poise. The orchestra gave a lovely dancing feel the Christe and everyone brought out the rather galant style of Et in unum Dominum.
In Domine Deus Christensson was joined by tenor Joshua Ellicott, making a technically assured pairing with a lovely flute solo. In the Laudamus Christensson brought the meaning of the text home, and was nicely supported by the solo violinist (Alexandra Wood).

William Towers brought a slightly cooler feel to his solos. His nicely fluent Qui sedes complemented by a lovely oboe solo. He brought a beautifully haunting tone to the Agnus Dei.

I have heard a variety of tenors in the Benedictus solo, and treasure a recording of the great Wagnerian tenor Walter Widdop in the aria. Ellicott was quite robust in tone but fluent and flowing, again complemented by a limpid flute solo.

For Benedict Nelson's first solo, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, you felt that his nice, rather correct passage-work was overshadowed by the rather spectacular playing from the horn and bassoon soloists. In  et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum you felt that he had rather a lot of words to get through. Again the performance was nicely correct, and well complemented by the fine oboe and oboe d'amore playing.

There was some fine playing from the orchestra, with the strings using minimal vibrato and giving much of the score a lovely bounce. A special mention should go to the three trumpeters, playing Bach's high trumpet parts at modern pitch (which is probably higher than that used in Bach's time).

There was much to enjoy in this performance, with some moments of great beauty and some stunning technical assurance, but I am not sure that it added up to more than the sum of its parts. Most importantly, I never got the feel of a coherent performance of a great religious master-work. Instead there was a feeling of a succession of superbly performed arias and choruses. But I went away amazed at the assurance and technical facility of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

Elsewhere on this blog:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month