Bach: Mass in B Minor
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall, 29 March 2022
How should an atheist approach Bach? And, in particular, his Mass in B minor, arguably his finest work and one that, to him, seemed to sum up a lifetime of music dedicated to Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) – the meaning of the S.D.G that Bach appended to all his sacred works?
The very fact that he put together collections of pieces in his final years begs the question as to whether Bach’s sacred compositions really were for the glory of God alone? If so, why would he assemble collected works with the apparent aim of reinforcing his own musical legacy, rather than leaving them with the godly purposes of their initial use? And how could he switch the same music from entirely secular purposes to sacred texts? There has been much discussion of such topics over many years, and an answer still seems illusive.
The B minor Mass was one of the works put together in the last year’s of his life, based on revised versions of earlier works. It was completed in 1749, a year before his death but has its roots back in 1724 with the first version of the Sanctus, and in 1733 when the Kyrie & Gloria were first composed. There are several theories as to why it was put together and whether, if ever, it was performed complete in Bach’s lifetime. The consensus is that it wasn’t. The first recorded public performance of the complete Mass was in Leipzig in 1859. Bach didn’t even give it a title. The score was organised in separate folders under the titles for each section. There was no overall title until well after his death, the first of several titles being Die Grosse Catholische Messe (Great Catholic Mass) noted in the 1790 estate records of CPE Bach, who had inherited the folders.
Whether a performance of this piece “offers few loftier spiritual or artistic challenges” or “lays bare the passionate, profoundly devoted heart of the man who wrote it”, as the Proms promotional bumf enthused, or whether it “can be considered universal” and “goes down across a wide range of cultures” as director John Butt observed is beyond the scope of this review. But, either way, Butt’s interpretation of it, helped by the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, was one of the finest I have heard.
I won’t attempt a detailed review as you can hear it for yourself on BBC Sounds (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001bcsw) and can form your own view But the arrangement of the performers does deserve a mention. Imagine a circular cake, sliced in half from top to bottom but with a large slice taken out of the bottom right corner. The 43 instrumentalists were on the left side of the cake, and the 50-strong choir on the right, soloists just in front, and the continuo group in the middle. It was very effective arrangement. One oddity was that most of the choir walked off the stage and back on again before the Sanctus, which was a slightly confusing way to rearrange them from a five-voice to a six-voice chorus.
The vocal soloists were Rachel Redmond soprano, Mary Bevan soprano, Iestyn Davies counter-tenor, Guy Cutting tenor, and Matthew Brook bass, with key instrumental contributions from Huw Daniel violin, Lisa Beznosiuk flute, Roger Montgomery horn, Adrian Bending timpani, and David Blackadder trumpet. It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that I thought there was rather too much vibrato from all of them.
Do listen, and enjoy.