Bach: B Minor Mass

JS Bach: B Minor Mass
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh
St John’s, Smith Square. 1 April 2018

The St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival concluded with an Easter Sunday performance of the B Minor Mass. it is a piece not normally associated with Holy Week, but it reflects in glorious musical form the belief system of the Christian believer. It is one of Bach’s last works and one that he clearly wanted posterity to hear, even though he never heard it performed himself. In fact, it wasn’t performed complete until a 100 years after Bach’s death. Its compositional background is complex, with versions of some individual movements dating back to 1724 (the Sanctus) and the Kyrie and Gloria (the Missa) completed in 1733 and presented to the new Saxon Elector with a view to getting the title of Composer to the Electoral Saxon Court, which he eventually got three years later. In the last few years of his life, Bach extended the Missa to include the full Latin Ordinary of the Catholic Mass by adding the Credo (the Symbolum Nicenum), Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the concluding Dona nobis pacem, the latter a repeat of an earlier Gloria movement. Even its current title is misleading, not least because only a few of the movements are actually in B minor.

The Gabrieli Consort and Players fielded an 18-strong choir and 25 instrumentalists, with soloists drawn from the choir. One feature of this performance was that, on several occasions, choruses started with just the five soloists singing. Although this is probably closer to Bach’s usual one-to-a-part practice, the use of the full choir made a much greater impact in the most powerful sections. The opening four bars of the Kyrie ended with an enormous rallentando, suggesting a far more romantic interpretation than we actually had. The following Largo fugal section made up for that early impression, notably with the carefully detailed articulation of the little motifs that make up Bach’s longer phrases. The five solo voices were slowly added to as the enormous, and well-judged, crescendo moved towards its powerful climax. This control of crescendos and overall volume was another feature of Paul McCreesh’s excellent interpretation.

It being Easter Sunday, the emotional and spiritual core of the entire work was perhaps even more relevant than usual, with the Et incarnatus est, Crucifixus, and Et resurrexit  being particularly powerful, as was the well-timed link between the Confiteor and the joyous repeat of the Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, the latter finishing in a gloriously triumphant Amen that thundered right through to the very last note without any attempt to slow up. A very well judged moment.

The vocal soloists were Mhairi Lawson and Charlotte Beament soprano, Anna Harvey mezzo, Jeremy Budd tenor, Edward Grint bass-baritone. I particularly liked Anna Harvey’s Agnus and Jeremy Budd’s Benedictus. Instrumentals of note were Catherin Martin, violin/leader, Kate Aldridge, continuo bass, Daniel Lanthier, oboes, Zoe Shevlin and Inga Klaucke, bassoons, Richard Bayliss, horn, and Jan Waterfield, harpsichord continuo.

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