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 1714 (the Crucifixus) 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. Continue reading

Bach: B Minor Mass

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.

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Spitalfields Music: Solomon’s Knot

Spitalfields Music: Solomon’s Knot
Bach B minor Mass
Shoreditch Town Hall. 11 December 2016

The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival concluded in spectacular style with the welcome return of Solomon’s Knot, a group that had impressed previous Spitalfields audiences – and have also impressed me in the past with their innovative approach to music performance. Their full title is the Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective, a name that sums up their approach. Founded in 2008, they perform with small forces, singing from memory, with no conductor and with a relaxed stage presence, helped by an informal dress code. For this Bach B minor Mass, they transfixed the audience with an extraordinarily powerful performance.

They used Joshua Rifkin’s edition of the piece, and his proposal that the work was intended to be sung as an ensemble piece for eight one to a part solo singers. The need for two extra singers for the concluding section led to Solomon’s Know using the 10 singers throughout to reinforce the choruses. The 20-strong orchestra, led by violinist James Toll, completed the well-balanced line-up of musicians. The fact that the singers do not use scores directly involves the audience in the music, as the singers eyes scan the audience and as they visibly respond to the music they are singing. Continue reading

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. Continue reading