Bach: B Minor Mass
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 December 2016
The annual St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival is now in its 31st year, the last 20 of which have been curated by Stephen Layton, conductor of Polyphony, who traditionally give the final concert, and Director of Music at Trinity College Cambridge whose choir gives the penultimate concert of the series. This year’s penultimate concert was a re-run of last year’s, reviewed here. I will not repeat the comments I made about last year’s concert, so it is worth reading that review before this one.
This year the Trinity College choir was 46-strong, two up from last year, with 16 additional alumni singers bought in to reinforce the 30-strong current student choir. Several of the alumni singers have been making their way in the post-university musical world, with at least two receiving honorable mentions on this website. This year a mezzo-soprano was added to the line up, alongside the countertenor Iestyn Davies. Mezzo Helen Charlston is one of the alumni I have already spotted as a singer of real promise and, although she only had a brief moment front stage (at the start, in the duet Christe), she again demonstrated a excellent voice.
The other soloists were the same as last year. I have heard soprano Katherine Watson several times since last year, and am increasingly impressed. Although she can still use rather too much vibrato for my taste, she is better able to control it. She is one of the few singers who can produce a proper trill, rather than just relying on vibrato – another is Iestyn Davies. In her Laudamus te she also showed her ability to ornament the melodic line. Margaret Faultless’ violin solo was rather overpowered by Layton’s decision to have all the other violins accompanying, rather than reducing the forces in this, and similar, sections. Iestyn Davies is the go-to countertenor of the moment, his increasing operatic experience very evident in his ability to project his voice above the strong orchestral playing. He has the key solo role in the B minor Mass, with two arias and a duet.
Gwilym Bowen (who, like Katherine Watson, is a Trinity College alumnus) has a pure and focused tone, which was to particularly effective in the Benedictus, its solo flute line played by Lisa Beznosiuk. Bass Neal Davis had two important solos the first, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, with the notable horn solo, here played by Roger Montgomery. The two bassoons.were particularly mellow in tone, to the extent that they were not heard in balance with the horn.
Stephen Layton’s direction was characteristically precise and controlled, with careful balancing of volume between the sections. As suggested above, I would have preferred him to have reduced the orchestral forces in the more intimate sections, and I was also surprised to hear the orchestra using a different pattern of articulation in the opening Kyrie from the choir, who made more of the distinctive paired-note slurs.
The joy of events like this is hearing the young singers of the Trinity College choir, one of the finest of the UK university choirs. There are many extended fugal entries to successfully test each of the vocal sections, and powerful choruses to test their sense of consort singing.
For an alternative was of presenting the B minor Mass, see my review of Solomon’s Knot’s performance in the recent Spitalfields Fesitival (11 Decemeber), reviewed here. With their group of just ten singers and an orchestra of 20, as compared to the 46-strong choir and orchestra of 35, Solomon’s Knot came far closer to the forces that Bach is likely to have envisaged.