BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass

BBC Prom 63: Bach B minor Mass
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2016

However many times I hear Bach’s B minor Mass, I never stopped being amazed at its compositional history. Almost certainly never heard during his lifetime, and with many of the sections lifted from earlier compositions, it was cobbled together over many years, the first part with the aim of securing a royal appointment in the Saxony Court. Despite all that it is one of the most, and arguably, the most extraordinary piece of music ever composed.   So it was no surprise that more than 5,00o people wanted to hear its performance at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall.

And therein lay the problem. How to perform a work, intended to be performed in an (albeit sizeable) church by the normal Baroque orchestral and choral forces, in a vast auditorium designed (if indeed it was designed for anything) for enormous forces. Nowadays most period instrument groups makes few concessions to the space and acoustics, and play the music in the way they normally do. This is what William Christie did, with a 24-strong choir and a typical Bach orchestra. This will not produce a sound to fill the hall. But it will produce a sound that Bach might recognise. And for me, that is the key thing. Prommers are, by and large, pretty intelligent people, so should be used to letting their ears adjust to the relatively subdued volume.

In Christie’s case, there was more than just the volume that marked this performance out as something different. Curiously, this is only the second time he has ever conducted this work, having overcome his earlier fear of it. It is certainly from a very different world to his usual exceptional interpretations of French music. But he brought a distinctly Gallic flavour to the music, with long phrases, a lack of detailed articulation, more than a smattering of French ornaments (which are not as inauthentic as some might think), including several extended suspensions, and an occasionally rhetorical approach to pulse, with moments of speeding up, often at the start of instrumental interludes. This added to the subdued volume to pour a degree of balm on the piece that a more articulate and punchy ‘Germanic’ performance might have avoided. One curious aspect that didn’t fit with this French mood, or indeed, with any normally accepted historically inspired performance, was his frequent extended concluding rallantandos.

All the  instrumental soloists were brought forward to stand close to the vocal soloists, making for rather more stage action than usual, but serving to highlight the importance of the instruments in Bach’s music. Very often the melodic phrase that sticks in the mind in Bach arias is not the singers line, but the ‘accompanying’ solo instrument.

The key  vocal soloists  were Katherine Watson and Tim Mead (soprano and counter-tenor), sharing what should have been two soprano and one counter-tenor roles. Both as soloists and in their duets, this fine pair of singers excelled. Less succesful were Reinoud Van Mechelen and André Morsch (tenor and baritone)

The instrumental soloists of Les Arts Florissants were on top form, notably horn-player Anneke Scott in her only appearance in the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus. One instrumental detail was that Christie directed from the harpsichord, but only actually played it during three or four arias or duets. I’m am never sure if conductors end up only playing the harpsichord when they feel that their arms are better used in conducting, rather than playing, but it seemed musically odd to have the percussive rattle of the harpsichord underpinning some of the more intimate moments, but being absent from the punchier chorus movements when its contribution would have been more relevant. The chamber organ continuo was played throughout, with some sensitive realisations of the figured bass, but with a array of rather awkward body movements that were both visually distracting and also technically unnecessary.

As usual, for those in the UK, this performance can be heard for the next few weeks on the BBC iPlayer. If you turn the volume up, you will get a more powerful impression than we did in the Royal Albert Hall.


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