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03 Aug 2012

Bach Mass in B minor, BBC Prom 26

Bach probably never intended the full Mass in B Minor to be performed, so it is tricky to talk about what forces he meant it to be performed by. But the Kyrie and Gloria certainly were sent by Bach to the Royal Court at Dresden (which was Roman Catholic), and these movements could be used in the Lutheran Church as well.

J S Bach : Mass in B minor

Joélle Harvey: soprano, Carolyn Sampson : soprano, Iestyn Davies : counter-tenor, Ed Lyon : tenor, Matthew Rose : bass, Choir of the English Concert, The English Concert, Harry Bicket : conductor

2nd August 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London


So we are entitled to start postulating about what Bach intended. But performing the work in the Royal Albert Hall is entirely different again, a space far bigger than Bach could ever have conceived of being used for his work. So that whilst I was listening to the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on Thursday 2 August at the BBC Proms, given by the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket, inevitably I was thinking not only about the quality of performance, but about the decisions taken to realise the work in the space and how successful they were as well.

Now, I have to admit up front that I am a one-to-a-part man. There is good evidence for this, it was very much standard Lutheran practice (see Andrew Parrott’s book The Essential Bach Choir). Whilst Bach might have sent the work to Dresden, he was a Lutheran through and through. So though he would presumably have welcomed hearing the piece in Dresden performed by soli, choir and orchestra (in our modern manner), it would not have surprised him to hear with it with just five or six singers. To fill the Royal Albert Hall though, you need to boost your forces somewhat.

Bicket used an orchestra of 50 players, including four flutes, two oboes and two bassoons, with continuo provided by a chamber organ sitting on the platform. Perhaps as a gesture to balance, his wind and brass players (bassoons apart) stood up to play. His choir had over forty singers in it with female sopranos and a mixture of male and female altos. The soloists were sopranos Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Ed Lyon and bass Matthew Rose.

For me, one of the tests of a good Mass in B Minor, irrespective of the forces used, is to listen to the first vocal/choral entries in the first fugal Kyrie. Everyone can get the massive opening chords right. But for the fugue that follows, which is started by the instruments and then continued by the voices, it is essential that voices and instruments are balanced in the right way. The instruments are not accompanying the voices, all parts are equal, so that when the voice parts enter it should be as part of the whole texture, not creating an entirely new one with the instruments relegated to the distant background.

This Bicket got right. His choir sang very smoothly, with a good line and though a little dominant were balanced nicely with the instrumental forces. More worryingly the performance lacked bounce and immediacy, Bicket kept the whole of the first Kyrie very much under wraps; small gestures from him being echoed by small vocal and instrumental gestures; nothing too big, but nothing too vivid; all a little bit too discreet and polite.

For the Christe, sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Joelle Harvey blended beautifully and sang with a fine sense of line, supported by a strong bass line. But with the second Kyrie I began to notice a problem. During the louder tutti passages it just wasn’t possible to hear the wind instruments properly, the volume and mass of the strings and voices was simply too much. Instead the wind texture would become apparent at moments when the strings and voices thinned. Now Bach’s orchestration isn’t generally about colour, it is about lines. In 19th century orchestration, if you can’t quite hear a particular instrument it is not essential because the single instrument is contributing colour to a full chord. But in Bach each instrument, or group of instruments, has a line, an important line. So from my seat in the central stalls, it sounded as if Bicket should have doubled his oboes and bassoons to keep the proportions right. This was something that I kept noticing throughout the performance, one of those nagging things which isn’t fatal, but which you wonder why it didn’t bother someone earlier.

Still on the subject of balance, I have to say a brief word about the organ. It probably did a sterling job supporting the singers but the instrument was simply too small and too discreet for the venue. Bach used his church organs for continuo, and whilst these instruments were far smaller and far different from the monster organ in the Royal Albert Hall, they did have a degree of poke and character which the chamber instrument lacked. (Paul McCreesh has made some interesting Bach recordings using small scale forces and with organs of the type Bach would have known).

What of the performance itself, niggles apart? Well, musically it was of a very high order. The choir of the English Concert were in fine voice and ranged from the fast brilliance of the "Cum Sancto Spirito" of the Gloria to the stunning vocal control of the "Et Incarnatus" and "Crucifixus" from the Credo. Whilst they could conjure up vocal substance in the large scale passages, they moved like a far smaller body in the fast moving ones.

Joelle Harvey and Carolyn Sampson were both elegantly fluent as the soprano soloists. Iestyn Davies brought clarity and a fabulous sense of line to his solos, projecting the vocal line with ease without ever forcing. He finished with a performance of exquisite beauty in the Agnus Dei. Ed Lyon was a relaxed and beautifully lyric tenor, with a good freedom in the upper register but still plenty of character. Matthew Rose was impressive in his first aria but appeared to be having problems in his second.

The orchestra were on similar stunning form, providing a series of superb instrumental obbligatos as well as sympathetic and characterful tutti playing. They didn’t peck at the notes as some period bands do, giving the music a far greater sense of line and shape.

This was a performance full of good moments. But, in the final choral Dona Nobis pacem, Bicket ensured that the chorus returned to the same understated manner as the opening Kyrie and that made me realise that there was something that I had been missing. For me, there wasn’t a strong sense of the spiritual. The performances were highly musical, intelligent realisations of the individual movements, but the whole did not coalesce into the sort of spiritual journey which Bach intended. Friends sitting behind me thought otherwise and found the performance both beautiful and moving, so each takes different things from such an event.

Performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor in the Royal Albert Hall is inevitably going to mean that decisions have to be taken. But whilst I question some aspects of the performance from Bicket and the English Concert, there is no doubt that we witness music making of a very high order.

Robert Hugill

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