in: Reviews

February 3, 2017

Exulting in Bach’s Mass

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Johann Sebastian Bach never actually heard his Mass in B Minor. Boston has been more fortunate of late. The Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music gave the piece in 2011, the Handel and Haydn Society in 2013, the Boston Cecilia and Chorus pro Musica in 2014. Last fall, we had Boston Baroque and then a Boston Early Music Festival presentation led by Ton Koopman. Thursday at Symphony Hall, it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s turn, under music director Andris Nelsons.

Now that historically informed interpretations of Baroque music are the fashion, we rarely hear Bach’s masterpiece done by big orchestras anymore. The BSO’s most recent performance in Symphony Hall was in 2001, under Seiji Ozawa; John Oliver led the one before that, in 1985. For the orchestra’s last Tanglewood reading, you have to go back to 1967, when Erich Leinsdorf was the music director.

“Big orchestra” is, of course, a relative term. For the Oratorio Society of New York in 1927, Walter Damrosch engaged 500 singers. Handel and Haydn Society concerts of the early 1950s got that down to 150 or so. By the time Otto Klemperer made his EMI recording, in 1967, the number was 48, with an orchestra to match. These days, period-instrument forces tend to top out at 30 singers and 30 instrumentalists. So I was curious to see how far Nelsons would go in the direction of “authenticity.”

As it turned out, not very. The orchestra numbered 44 and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by its new director James Burton, 116. What was more surprising were Nelsons’s tempos. Klemperer’s recording, the most expansive one I know, runs 135 minutes. Period-instrument recordings like Harry Christophers’s with the Sixteen and Martin Pearlman’s with Boston Baroque average around 105. Nelsons’s reading checked in at 109. You mightn’t think forces this large — especially a choir this large — could manage such speeds, but Thursday’s execution had fervor as well as weight. 

At any speed, Bach’s greatest-hits album — completed in 1749, the year before his death, it borrows liberally from previous works — is a challenge. It’s designed to showcase his mastery of everything from stile antico to Empfindsamer Stil. The Baroque-style fugue in the first “Kyrie eleison” is followed by Palestrina-like Renaissance polyphony in the second, and in the Credo, a plainchant cantus firmus melody acts as a walking bass, a pilgrim asserting his faith. The chorus ranges from sober to ecstatic. It conveys an assurance of general salvation; the soloists, on the other hand, are plagued by guilt and doubt as they deal, often in a minor key, with the sections of the Mass relating to Christ. There’s a lot of dancing, too: you might make out a polonaise in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” of the Gloria, a siciliana in the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” of the Credo, a passepied in the “Osana in excelsis” of the Sanctus, perhaps even a réjouissance in the “Et resurrexit” of the Credo. 

The chorus’s opening “Kyrie eleison” was mild, and the exquisitely molded orchestral build-up that followed led me to think that Nelsons’s interpretation was going to be a meticulous exploration of the music at the expense of the text. That proved not to be the case. The chorus was transcendent throughout, with pellucid enunciation; from the back row of Symphony Hall’s second balcony, I could register the hushed “sepultus est” of the “Crucifixus” with no difficulty. I was surprised to see everyone on book — the TFC usually sings from memory — but it didn’t seem to matter: faces were raised to Nelsons rather than buried in the score.

The Gloria erupted out of the F-sharp-major conclusion of the second “Kyrie eleison,” fast, exuberant, and swinging. Nelsons then executed a hairpin turn of mood into the hushed “Et in terra pax.” The TFC was serene in the “Gratias agimus tibi”; it seemed dazzled by radiance in the “Qui tollis,” and then at the end of the Gloria, there was another startling explosion into the jubilant “Cum Sancto Spiritu.”

The Credo, like the Kyrie, started calmly, as if the confession of faith were a matter-of-fact exercise, but Nelsons had just half the TFC singing at this point; when the full chorus burst in with the “Credo in unum Deum” that starts the “Patrem omnipotentem,” the result was electrifying. The “Et incarnatus est” was grave, almost hypnotic; the passacaglia of the “Crucifixus” was a study in dark agony; the jubilant “Et resurrexit” was keen in rhythm without ever sounding brusque or clipped. Bach begins the “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” as a continuation of the “Confiteor”; here it began in fear and trembling, as if hardly daring to hope, before letting loose in exultation. The “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” with its swaying triplets, made a joyful noise, and there was another nimble transition into the 3/8 “Pleni sunt coeli.”          

The four vocal soloists — soprano Malin Christensson, mezzo Christine Rice, tenor Benjamin Bruns, and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann — were less gratifying. Their voices sturdy, they sang earnestly. But whereas tempos on the order of those taken by Klemperer afford ample room for expression, the current style is less accommodating. In the Gloria, it was the soloists’ instrumental partners, all standing, who stood out. Elizabeth Rowe’s sweet-toned flute was more pastoral than Christensson and Bruns in the “Domine Deus”; Robert Sheena’s oboe d’amore outshone Rice in the “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”; Richard Sebring’s descant horn had more bite than Müller-Brachmann in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Matters improved after intermission: Müller-Brachmann in “Et in Spiritum Sanctum,” with its triple time suggesting the Trinity and its wind accompaniment honoring the Holy Spirit; Bruns, again accompanied by Rowe, conveying the loneliness of the one who came in the name of the Lord in the “Benedictus”; Rice a kind of mater dolorosa in the “Agnus Dei,” which could have been drawn from a Bach Passion.

Nelsons and players congratulate James Burton (Winslow Townson pohoto)

The orchestra more than held its own against the large choral component. James David Christie as the continuo organist provided the necessary firm foundation. The playing overall was recessed but not redundant; everything was audible. You cannot have a B-Minor Mass without splendid squealing from the trumpets; this was provided by Thomas Rolfs, Benjamin Wright, and Michael Martin, playing on modern instruments but channeling their Baroque predecessors.

Conducting with a score but no baton, Nelsons opted to sit when the chorus wasn’t singing. He was focused throughout, however; he seems able to look everywhere at once, like hundred-eyed Argos, and the effect on his musicians is palpable. This B-Minor Mass combined mass and forward motion, with no sacrifice in clarity or feeling. I have not heard it better.

Nelsons and the BSO will repeat the work Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday and Sunday. And that’s not the end of the B-Minor Mass season: the Cantata Singers will essay it February 24th at Jordan Hall and February 26th at Cary Hall in Lexington.

Ed. Note: Reference to Thomas Dunn removed.

Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.

9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This is a gold standard review. Kudos to Jeffrey Gantz who certainly knows his Bach. And kudos to Nelsons, the orchestra and the chorus. In retrospect would we have opted for a smaller chorus?

    Comment by Jim Levinson — February 3, 2017 at 6:52 pm

  2. I’m puzzled by Gantz’s reference to “Thomas Dunn’s Handel and Haydn Society concerts of the early 1950s [, which] got [the size of the chorus for the B minor Mass] down to 150 or so.” Isn’t it the case that Dunn only became H&H’s director in 1967? Or is Gantz perhaps referring to hypothetical guest appearances with H&H before Dunn became director?

    Comment by George Harper — February 4, 2017 at 12:04 pm

  3. Yes, very interesting comments on both the work and various interpretations. But, boy how much I disagree with this review. Take aside the question of style, it certainly didn’t convince me at all. Take the sublime alto air in the second half, nice voice but no character ! The best moment for me was the second flute solo accomp. It was played in a simple and touching way. One of the rare moment of sincerity… Also the baritone was quite engaging.
    Writing about the solo players from the orchestra, should mention the elegant and well articulate playing of violinist Malcolm Lowe. All together, I missed moments of fervor to convey the message of this complex and rich work.

    Comment by Marc Benador — February 4, 2017 at 1:14 pm

  4. I remember performing the B-minor with Tom Dunn and the H&H in the 1970s – the exact date escapes me – in a chorus of about 40-50.

    Comment by perry41 — February 4, 2017 at 7:40 pm

  5. In general, the reviewers here gave readers impressions that their knowledge of the recording literature is from illiterate to indifferent. On occasion, necessary mentioning of relevant recordings can be a great addition to a review and makes certain point easy to make/follow, as evidenced by the current good example.

    I’d prefer this music to be more on the solemn side, rather than joyful. iI “Kyrie eleison”, the music flowed under Nelsons, but I really wanted the music to be more dirven, with clear layers, esp. from the chorus. I should mention that, even though Klemperer may have the longest recording time, Celibidache extended this chapter more than anybody in time. His slow formula sounds silly in many cases, but not in this one. That fully dignified feeling is what can not be heard in concerts often.

    I don’t quite like Nelsons’ taste in female singers. their duet was quite annoying. I hated to say this. But really wanted to remind the mezzo during ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ that she should not sound like she was selling fish in Quincy market.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 4, 2017 at 9:50 pm

  6. Tonight, the chorus wasn’t on the best form all the time. Whether that is because of the size, or getting used to the new director, or gaps in Nelsons’ technique, or just happenstance, I could not say.

    However, I did like much of what went on. Excellent solo playing, generally successful tempi, and a lot of appropriate expression. The slight bits of ungluing (and they weren’t obtrusive) didn’t put a damper on the evening. Which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t program it more than once. Sometimes familiarity brings strength to performances that go beyond the merely technical issues.

    Comment by Camilli — February 4, 2017 at 11:36 pm

  7. 1. Nelsons took breaks between sections that destroyed all sense of forward motion. He created that horrible sense of “full stop, now back to work” that drains the piece of energy and momentum.
    2. At times the monumental choral forces drowned out the orchestra. We listened to chorus and trumpets while others labored to no purpose. They were inaudible.
    3. This was not an auspicious debut for our new TFC director. The tenors embarrassed themselves more than once. Most unusual.

    Comment by Raymond — February 4, 2017 at 11:48 pm

  8. he orchestra was large, but Nelsons used it judiciously, often keeping much of it quiet to let a small concertino group speak more eloquently. The instrumental soloists were wonderful, with one exception. Malcolm Lowe’s violin part in the Laudamus Te was colorful and characterful, but it was a color and character that seemed entirely misplaced and wrong for the work. It sounded to me like a Mahler satire of genteel, sentimentalized parlor-Bach. A few minutes later, in the Domine Deus, Elizabeth Rowe provided the counterexample. With her silver, thoroughly modern flute, she gave us music of perfect simplicity, gentleness, and gaiety, proving that solemnity and joy can coexist perfectly well, pacem Thorsten. Sebring was also excellent in the Quoniam, though his job was easier because the part is more forward and energetic.

    I do agree with Thorsten about the vocal soloists, however, who I thought were too operatic, showy, and most of all too loud. Rowe’s playing in the opening of the Benedictus was sublime, one of the high points of the evening, and when Bruns came in I hated him, because he was loud and vulgar and drowned her out. After a minute or two I realized he was actually singing rather beautifully, and half-forgave him, but he was still too loud.

    I didn’t find the pace particularly fast at all. I have seven or eight recordings, and all of them except the Klemperer mostrosity (which is so stately I become afraid it’s never actually going to move at all) come in between 101 and 109 minutes. Of course I favor conductors like Gardiner, Herreweghe, Harnoncourt, and Suzuki, whose choruses are in the 20-30 range.

    Which raises the crucial point. “In retrospect would we have opted for a smaller chorus?” Yes, yes, many times yes (I would say a thousand times yes, but that would violate the spirit of my argument.) A chorus of 116 singing the B Minor Mass is like a full orchestra playing a string quartet. It can be done, and sometimes is, but it is a transcription, and does not closely resemble what the composer actually wrote. There were certainly times less night when one could become enjoyable immersed in a vast well of sound, but really that is possible with much, much smaller forces. Listen to John Butt’s one-voice-per-part recording with the Dunedin Consort, which uses a total of 10 singers; it is never meager or weak, and it is vital and alive at points that last night were muddy and unclear. In several sections, like the second Kyrie, the harmony is of an entirely different kind, individual voices mixing and separating, moving independently, rather than progressing between chordal blocks, which is all that’s really possible with 116 voices. I don’t think it had anything to do with the direction of the chorus, but with its size. Leave three-quarters of them at home, and hire vocal soloists of more moderate temperament, and all will go well.

    Comment by SamW — February 5, 2017 at 5:42 pm

  9. I found this performance disappointing in the way I find most Bach performance disappointing these days: it was infected by the early-music virus, in which faster is always better. There was scarcely any slow music at all, and some of the tempos, among them the Et resurrexit and Cum sancto spiritu, were absurdly fast. The Crucifixus implied Christ lugging his cross to Golgotha at a fast march. The result of these tempi is first to strip the music of gravitas, likewise musical contrast. Meanwhile the speed erases any number of exquisite details in the music. I was with an old friend who is finely sensitive to music and had never heard the piece before, and she wasn’t that taken with it. I think the tempos had much to do with the piece failing to score with her. The best I can say is that the singers and players had the chops to execute the excessive tempos, most notably the splendid trumpets. The last B Minor I heard had the chorus and the orchestra audibly scrambling to keep up. I can’t wait for the fast-tempo virus to run its course. Except given the nature of musical fashion, it’ll probably be replaced by ridiculously slow tempi. The answer to all this is basic musicality and expressiveness, of which James Levine gave any number of demonstrations in his all too short tenure here.

    Comment by JS — February 9, 2017 at 7:57 pm

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