Friday 30 June 2023

I have rarely heard Bach's Mass in B minor performed with such consistency of style, integrity and sheer musicality: Vox Luminis at Wigmore Hall

Autograph score of the first page of the Credo of Bach's Mass in B minor
Autograph score of the first page of the Credo of Bach's Mass in B minor
Bach: Mass in B minor; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 29June 2023

Bach's crowning achievement performed with a strength of purpose and superb style, what I came back to was the consistency of phrasing and the sense of line

Bach's Mass in B Minor began life as a Missa, consisting of just Kyrie and Gloria, a work that would be acceptable in both Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgies, and thus ideal to be presented to Augustus III in 1733, the new Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. It worked, and Bach ultimately got a Dresden court title. The mass setting was grand and large-scale, certainly not suitable for Leipzig but Bach may have heard it in Dresden (his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach became organist at the Sophienkirche, Dresden's main Protestant church, in June 1733).

When Bach expanded the work into a full mass, his only setting of the complete Ordinary of the Mass, he can surely have had no performance in mind and the entire mass is far too long for liturgical use. This leads us to wonder what his idea of the performance was. There was the Lutheran tradition of using single voices, the cantatas work successfully this way and even the Passions do so, but the Missa was written, surely, for the forces of the Dresden Hofkapelle, which had choir and soloists. These latter included such luminaries as soprano Faustina Bordone, wife of Johann Adolph Hasse the court Kapellmeister, which leads to the unlikely but wonderful speculation of Handel's leading lady singing in the first performance of Bach's Missa!

For their performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor at Wigmore Hall on 29 June 2023, Vox Luminis, artistic director Lionel Meunier, used almost minimum forces. Ten singers and 19 instrumentalists still made a whopping 29 performers on the platform. Soloists were from the ensemble and most sang a solo at some point. The ten singers were lined up across the front of the platform throughout the performance and rather remarkably all was achieved without a conductor (Meunier sang bass including the 'Quoniam to solus sanctus' solo).

This was rather a wonderful performance, what came across was the sense of unanimity of purpose and style for the whole work. The solos and duets felt integral to the work rather than elements added by flown-in celebrity soloists, yet every single singer was technically superb. A performance such as this requires skilled ensemble singers who have the ability to step out into the limelight and then retire again, this everyone did. It was a performance which brought profound satisfaction, partly because of the lovely consistency in the singing and instrumental playing. 

The vocal ensemble addressed Bach's vocal lines with a strength of purpose combined with superb style so that throughout the evening, what I came back to was the consistency of phrasing and the sense of line, something that was mirrored in the instruments. The moments where Bach has the vocal ensemble singing long lines which contrast with more animated instrumental contributions, such as a walking bass, were complete magic. Another highlight was the 'Crucifixus' section of the Credo where Bach's descending vocal lines miraculously coalesced into a sense of stasis.

The soloists were not credited, which means that the only soloists that I can confidently identify by name are bass  Lionel Meunier, who gave a terrific account of the 'Quoniam' in the Gloria full of colour and character, and alto Alexander Chance, who was mesmerising in the Agnus Dei, singing with line, intensity and focus. In the Kyrie the soprano/alto duet was vividly done, full of vigour and sophistication, whilst in the Gloria the alto soloist in 'Laudamus te' had a lovely straight-toned approach complemented by a fine solo violin. [A correspondent informs me that in both of these the alto was Sophia Faltas] The soprano/tenor duet, 'Domine Deus', was full of strong tone and fine phrasing, featured some vivid flute playing, and a plangent soprano solo in 'Qui sedes'. 

In the Credo, the soprano/alto duet featured a pair of beautifully unfolding vocal lines that felt unhurried despite the busy-ness of the notes, and the bass soloist in this movement (who logically must have been Sebastian Myrus) was equally vibrant. The Benedictus paired a plangent, strong-toned tenor with some lovely flute playing.

The instrumental playing was equally strong toned, this was a performance notable for the depth and richness of sound, something that did not come from sheer numbers but from the approach of the individual performers. It was full of wonderful instrumental felicities, not just the obbligato solos, but the other moments when individuals are called to step forward, a pawky bassoon (Luis Tasso Athayde Santos), vivid horn (Bart Cypers), sympathetic trumpets (Rudolf Lorinc, Russell Gilmour, William Russell) who made everything so much more technicolour yet never over-dominated.

However, there is a but coming. By having the ten singers lined up across the front of the stage, the instrumentalists were largely hidden from view, and there was a sense that when the ten singers were at full throttle, they were masking the instrumental ensemble. 

When listening to Bach's Mass in B minor, I have two major requirements. The first is that the solos feel part of the ensemble, this is easily achieved with small forces but harder with larger ones where the soloists are completely separate. The other is that the vocal lines should be in balance with the instruments, in choral moments the solo instrumental lines should be as important as the voices, we should be able to hear the first oboe as clearly as the first soprano. A key test is the very first choral entry in the Kyrie, does it feel like an extension of the instrumental fugue or does it revert to orchestra simply accompanying the voices. 

This performance passed the first test with flying colours but occasionally failed that second test, not through any lack of musicality but because, I think, of the difficulty of projecting a violin line clearly from behind a row of singers. This was a performance which, you felt, needed to expand into a bigger space.

But wonderful things were achieved. I have rarely heard Bach's Mass in B minor performed with such consistency of style, integrity and sheer musicality.

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