OAE: Bach B Minor Mass

Bach in Excelsis
Bach B Minor Mass
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Václav Luks
Royal Festival Hall, 19 March 2023

Making his debut with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Royal Festival Hall, Czech harpsichordist Vaclav Luks presented what was advertised as a “chamber interpretation” of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, “based on his study of the performance practices of recent decades”. Vaclav Luks is best known for his orchestra and vocal consort Collegium 1704 and his championing of the Czech composer Zelenka. I have only heard him conduct his orchestra once before, in Leipzig in 2015 when Collegium 1704 was the orchestra in residence (whole festival review here). His excitement at this RFH booking was evident, not least bringing his own score onto the podium several minutes before the start (a ritual usually undertaken by an underling), peeping out from the stage entrance and snapping a mobile phone photo of the audience. Of course, a conductor only sees the audience as he walks on and at the end, so I can fully understand his wanting a preliminary peep.

Anybody who had read the usually impeccable trailers from the OAE would have had their expectations raised and then dashed. The OAE’s mistake (and it was a serious one) was to use a translated version of the programme notes from Vaclav Luks 2013 recording of the B Minor Mass. In those notes. he writes of “how he had sought to strip away decades and centuries of performance traditions to rediscover the work for himself”. Many in the sophisticated and knowledgeable Royal Festival Hall audience would almost certainly have assumed that after several decades of rethinking the approach to performing Bach and, apart from the occasional local choral society performance, moving well away from the over-romanticised performances of decades ago was a given. So I don’t think I was alone in wondering what these insights into performance practice and interpretation would be after the radical shifts since the 1960s.

It turned out to be, with few exceptions, that this was a mainstream 21st-century performance, with no new insights or revelations. And, far from being a “chamber interpretation”, it fielded a choir of 22, five additional soloists and an orchestra of 34. That is, at best, par for the course, if not, in terms of vocal numbers, rather in excess territory. It turns out that the 2013 CD notes were referring back to the long-lost days before the musical revolution of the 1970s and beyond, despite there being an enormous number of post-romantic and historically informed recordings and performances. Perhaps things in Prague in 2013 were very different from the rest of Europe.

One of his most famous works, alongside the Matthew and John Passions, the B Minor Mass has a remarkably complex history. It was almost certainly never performed during Bach’s lifetime. It started life in 1724 with a Sanctus which was later reworked for inclusion in the Mass. In 1733, during a period of unease in Leipzig, Bach composed a short Lutheran-style ‘Missa’ (Kyrie and Gloria) which he used as a calling card for preferment to the Dresden Court of the new sovereign, Augustus III, a Catholic convert, in the quest for the title “Electoral Saxon Court Composer”.

Bach returned to the score in 1749, just before his death, adding the additional sections needed to make up a full Mass – one of a number of revisited projects in his final years. It is remotely possible that he intended it for performance in Dresden’s new Hofkirche or St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, although there is no real evidence for either. He didn’t give the piece a title but, curiously, kept the score in four separate folders with different titles for each. It wasn’t until the death of CPE Bach that a title first appeared – Die Grosse Catholische Messe. It was given several other titles before finally settling on its current title in the mid 18th-century. The first complete public performance seems to have been in 1859 in Leipzig. We have no idea how many singers Bach envisaged, although the idea that it would have been more than one-to-a-part theory is pretty convincing, given the nature of the work and the knowledge that the otherwise unrelated Passions were performed by the combined forces of the three principal Leipzig churches.

Regardless of the OAE’s unfortunate pre-concert hype, the forces were just about right for the size and acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The OAE choir were on exceptionally good form, with precision and clarity that made every word clear. The soloists were Julia Doyle and Anna Devin, soprano, Tim Mead (replacing Hugh Cutting) countertenor, Hugo Hymas, tenor, and Roderick Williams, baritone. Tim Mead could have controlled his vibrato more than he did – there were several moments when he showed that he could The tenor was also a little too vibrant for my taste but the other singers, despite not being vibrato free, managed to project the music without any issues of intonation.

As to Vaclav Luks’ interpretations, one particularly unusual and striking moment came at that magical passage that links the Confiteor section with Et expecto, a passage that Bach composed straight into the autograph and is partly illegible. The first bar in the extract below is marked Adagio, the second Vivace ed allegro as the full orchestra arrives. Although there are only two voices involved (soprano 1 and continuo bass) there are many ways of interpreting this passage, Luks’ novel use of a very slow and highly articulated et ex- was a new one to me, and it worked.

Some of his tempos were slow by present-day standards (the opening fugue, for example, was very measured) and his concluding rallantandos would be frowned on by many, although I did like the sensitive shading of final chords. Otherwise, with one exception, Václav Luks impressed as a conductor. The expectation was the same that I pointed out in my 2015 Leipzig review when I wrote that “he should give his soloists rather more space”. There were several moments when a solo singer with continuo forces was conducted with a vigour that should only really be used for a full orchestra. as well as being distracting for the soloist standing within striking distance, it also suggested a lack of respect for the soloist and continuo forces to do the right thing.

The players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were on their usual good form, with notable contributions from Huw Daniel whose mellow violing tone was beautifully matched to the mood of the Laudamus te, continuo players Catherine Rimer and Christine Sticher (cello and bass), and Roger Montgomery, horn, for one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard of the tricky solo in Et in Spiritum sanctum. Another floated idea from the 2013 CD programme notes was the promise of something other than the weedy box organs

The programme notes can the read here.