Bach: Mass in B Minor
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,
St John’s, Smith Sq. 22 December 2015
The 30th St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival ended on 23 December with the traditional Messiah, with Stephen Layton directing Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The evening before saw what has become another tradition, the appearance of the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge (where Stephen Layton is Director of Music), also with the OAE. I missed their concert last year, but I think it was the same work with the same group of soloists (Katherine Watson soprano, Iestyn Davies countertenor, Gwilym Bowen tenor, Neal Davies, bass). Although it lacks the seasonal element of Messiah, it is an extraordinary and uplifting work, whatever your belief in the words and sentiments might be. It also has an fascinating history, reflecting insights into Bach’s character and emotional response to his own compositions. Part of that complex history is that Bach never called it the B minor Mass, only part of it is actually in B minor, and he never heard it performed.
Although Bach’s post in Leipzig had no court or royal connections, it seems that he retained an interest in such accolades. When the Saxon Elector (Augustus the Strong, King of Poland) died in 1733, Bach presented the first two movements (Kyrie and Gloria) of what became the B minor Mass, (reusing some earlier music) to the new Elector, with a plea to be given the honorary title of Electoral Saxon Court Composer. His petition mentions that he had suffered ‘one injury or another’ in Leipzig, no doubt reflecting his battles with the town and church authorities. He reused parts of it for a Christmas cantata around ten years later, but it was only in the last few years of his life that Bach added the remaining movements (Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei), reusing an earlier Sanctus and, again, drawing on other pre-existing music for several other movements. It was first performed in the format we know today in 1859, after publication in 1845 under the title High Mass in B Minor.
Although the 44-strong choir (expanded from the usual 30 choral scholars) is considerably larger than Bach’s generally accepted vocal forces, they balanced well with the orchestra. Indeed they sang with an excellent sense of consort, with obvious strengths in each vocal line. There are many exposed entries that test the individual vocal lines, including, for example, the extended bass passage at the end of Et resurrexit. As well as their singing ability, they also impressed with their discipline, standing on cue, often midway through an instrumental introduction to a movement. They were arranged in a slightly unusual format with the basses in a single line at the back, with the tenors in a block in the middle with soprano to the left and altos (all but one female) to the right.
The soloists all excelled. Katherine Watson has slightly too much vibrato for my taste, but it was certainly not excessive and she retained her focussed tone, clarity of diction and intonation throughout. Her Laudamus te also featured an eloquently fluid violin solo from the OAE leader Matthew Truscott. Iestyn Davies has deservedly achieved star status, and I overheard his name mentioned several times within the audience as the capacity crowd gathered. His key moment came in the penultimate Agnus Dei, the absolute purity and innocence of his voice being the perfect advocate for the direct plea of the text. Gwilym Bowen (who, along with Katherine Watson, is a Trinity College alumnus) also has a particularly pure and focussed tone, heard to particularly good effect in the moving Benedictus, with its flowing solo flute line from Lisa Beznosiuk. Neal Davis has two particularly distinctive bass solos the first, Quoniam tu solus sanctus with a spectacular horn solo and two bassoons. I heard Ursula Paludan Monberg give one of the finest performances of the horn solo I have ever heard a couple of years ago in Leipzig – although this time the standard wasn’t quite as perfect, it was certainly impressive.
Stephen Layton is one of the leading conductors of his generation, and it is easy to see why. He deals in longish phrases with excellent control of volume and attention to detail, using a range of speeds, all appropriate to the mood, and never inappropriately fast. There are important links between some of the movement in the Mass, and he dealt with these particularly well – notable into the Et exspecto at the end of the Credo. I liked the way that he conducted hemiolas (the distinctive end-of-phrase switch in triple time music from the usual two groups of three beats to three groups of two), something that few conductors do.