For choral ensembles, J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, like Mt. Everest for mountaineers, exerts a most powerful attraction while also striking trepidation into the hearts of those bold enough to attempt it. Even by Bach’s exalted standards, the Mass contains some of his finest — as well as most difficult — music. It is not surprising, therefore, that we don’t encounter performances of it every week. On Saturday, May 15 in Sanders Theater, the Back Bay Chorale, conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, gave a skilful, beautiful, and moving tour of the splendors of this supreme masterpiece.
The “Kyrie”’s opening chords had an ideal combination of weight and transparency from both chorus and orchestra. The orchestra then demonstrated how to shape and elegantly phrase the fugue subject that followed. The choir took up the identical phrasing, entering one part at a time. The first two entries, those of the tenors and altos, were slightly tarnished by being very slightly under pitch, but this was happily resolved by the time the full chorus had entered. Mr. Jarrett demonstrated full awareness of the music’s integral ebb and flow without artificially highlighting it. The two-soprano duet of “Christe eleison” was beautifully rendered by Kendra Colton and Sonja Tengblad. It would be near impossible to find two more ideally matched voices, and, as they were ever listening to each other, they further enhanced the performance with perfect unanimity on every detail of phrasing and dynamics. The second “Kyrie eleison” features a harmonically treacherous fugue subject, and unlike the slight misstep of the first Kyrie, the individual chorus parts displayed spot-on intonation here.
The “Gloria in excelsis,” taken at an exuberant tempo, had a fine sense of swing. It is not difficult to imagine this demanding piece in triple meter developing its own centrifugal force and starting to spin out of control, but Mr. Jarrett, the orchestra, and chorus kept it steady and allowed it to generate its own excitement. The polyphony here (and everywhere in this piece) is so delicious, one regretted occasionally missing out on the lower parts when the trumpets covered them, but fortunately, this didn’t happen too often.
Ms. Tengblad sparkled in the florid writing of the “Laudamus te” and, when given a sustained line, she made it fully expressive. The concertmaster, Heidi Braun-Hill, contributed an elegant violin obbligato, alternating and dueting with the singer. Again, there was absolute unanimity of approach between the duet partners, though here it may not have been ideal. Staccato notes that sound natural in the ornamental figures of a violin part come off sounding uncomfortably close to hiccups in a vocal line when clipped equally short.
The nobility and gradually accumulating power of the “Gratias agimus tibi” chorus came through clearly even if the text did not. In the following duet (“Domine Deus”)for soprano Kendra Colton and tenor Aaron Sheehan the balance tended to favor Ms. Colton, though this improved in the B section due to the soprano’s lower and tenor’s higher respective tessituras. The singers were partnered by a lovely obbligato played in unison by flutists Sarah Brady and Vanessa Holroyd, and as before, singers and instrumentalists showed a fine consistency of style in all details. Following the so-called B section, Bach surprises us by omitting a reprise of the A section and proceeding almost surreptitiously (underscored by the chorus remained seated) into the choral “Qui tollis peccata mundi.” Characterized by achingly dissonant suspensions, this section was played and sung with pathos and full understanding of the text (“Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us”). The plea for mercy continues in the succeeding alto aria “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.” Though somewhat less abject than the preceding chorus, the prevailing mood of penitence was well conveyed by mezzo-soprano Krista River and oboist Peggy Pearson. Ms. River was particularly impressive executing the many wide intervals in the vocal part, making them seem completely natural when in fact they are a prime example of Bach’s instrumental style of vocal writing. Bass-baritone Sumner Thompson caught the broad-shouldered swagger of his aria, “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus,” while remaining agile in the coloratura passages. He was well supported by the nimble bassoons of Ron Haroutunian and Elah Grandel, and Whitacre Hill rendered the fearsome horn obbligato with unruffled virtuosity. Taken at an uncompromising tempo, the chorus “Cum Sancto Spiritu” crackled with rhythmic excitement. It soon gives way to a fugue whose countersubject consists of over 50 consecutive 16th notes. Here was one of the very few places in the performance where the ensemble began ever so slightly to totter; Mr. Jarrett prudently pulled the tempo back infinitesimally, and everything was fine, building to the climactic conclusion in a blaze of trumpet virtuosity courtesy of Terry Everson.
“Credo in unum Deum” was played and sung with a nod to the Renaissance choral style that influenced its composition. The later chorus “Et incarnatus est” made a strong contrast in its expressive chromaticism. For this listener, this was the most emotionally profound moment of the night, given with poignancy and beautifully accurate intonation, whereas the “Crucifixus” was somewhat hindered by a businesslike tempo which didn’t allow the musical sighs to have their full impact. Nonetheless, the concluding whisper of “… sepultus est” (he was buried) was quite affecting. The outburst of joy in “Et resurrexit” was enhanced by the crisp ensemble of chorus and orchestra in the extended coloratura writing. The light, springy approach paid considerable dividends here, never allowing the energy and ecstasy to flag.
The appropriately massive, six-part “Sanctus” typified the prevailing esthetic of the performance: weighty but not ponderous, powerful but not unrestrained, allowing for clarity of harmony and ensemble. If the ensemble of the concluding fugue, “Pleni sunt coeli,” wobbled momentarily, it was likely because it was one of the rare moments when a majority of chorus members were not watching Mr. Jarrett. This seemed to be confirmed by the superior ensemble of the succeeding “Osanna,” which, though no easier to sing than its predecessor, had more singers watching. The “Benedictus” was a display piece for both tenor Aaron Sheehan and flutist Sarah Brady, Mr. Sheehan managing the lengthy phrases and high tessitura with apparent ease and Ms. Brady seemingly hardly ever needing to breathe in the endless phrases of the obbligato. Kudos to both performers.
In the aria “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi” Ms. River and Mr. Jarrett took a daringly slow tempo and sustained it admirably. The obbligato here was played by all the violins whose complete eschewing of vibrato added to the penitential quality of the music. Ms. River took in stride one of Bach’s most disjunctive vocal lines, her legato smooth as satin. The final chorus “Dona nobis pacem” revisited the same music Bach used for “Gratias agimus tibi” approximately an hour earlier. Once again the upward stretching lines and majestic tempo gave the piece nobility and gravitas, bringing a distinguished performance to its end. We look forward to future endeavors of the Back Bay Chorale for, having taken on and impressively mastered the great Mass in B Minor, there will be few assignments they will find daunting now.