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Much More Than Justice For Bach’s B-minor Mass


Choristers in the dress rehearsal (Julian Bullitt photo)

The nave of Emmanuel Church in Boston was filled on Saturday evening, September 24, for Emmanuel Music’s presentation of Bach’s B-minor Mass, BWV 232 . The Mass is both a curiosity and a summation: the curiosity comes from a devout Lutheran writing a (not-quite Roman Catholic) Mass complete with Nicene Creed, a work the composer never heard performed; and a summation of the composer’s career, encompassing self-citation, range of compositional and contrapuntal technique, as well as a devoted setting of the text of the mass which must clearly owe something to the composer’s own religious feeling. Emmanuel Music, led by Artistic Director Ryan Turner, more than did justice to Bach in this performance, both his music and his devotion. It was an evening of fine, deeply felt musicmaking marked by a breadth of emotion and a high calibre of musicality. All soloists were from the chorus.

The opening “Kyrie” was memorable for the pathos and shapely phrases which highlighted the plangent text. The “Christe” which followed was marked by rising phrases, hopes of salvation, an eagerness and brightness well captured by all the performers, including the soloists Kendra Colton (soprano) and Thea Lobo (mezzo-soprano). This contrast made the minor-keyed, keening lamentation of the second “Kyrie” so much more haunting in this performance. The alternation continued in the following “Gloria,” with its shocking entrance of trumpets (here not quite fully tuned). Susan Consoli (soprano) gave a fullsome reading of “Laudamus te,” joined by the sensitive and lively phrasings of Heidi Braun-Hill on violin. After the choral movement “Gratias agimus tibi,” the “Domine Deus” brought Teresa Wakim (soprano) and Matthew Anderson (tenor) forward, each in fine voice.

The “Qui tollis” was quieter in dynamic, more introspective and pleading. For the “Qui sedes” the clear bell-tones of Deborah Rentz-Moore (mezzo-soprano) found a richly dark counterpart in Peggy Pearson’s magisterial handling of the oboe d’amore solo; two thumbs up to both. Donald Wilkinson (baritone) took the solo turn in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” which segued directly into the rousing “Cum Sancto Spiritu.”

The “Credo (Symbolum Nicenum)” opened the second half of the concert decisively, the chorus in good and powerful voice. Roberta Anderson (soprano) and Miranda Loud (mezzo-soprano) gave a beautifully blended, sensitive reading of the movement “Et in unum.”

Music Director Ryan Turner and Concertmistress Heidi-Braun-Hill (Julian Bullitt photo)

The chorus gorgeously captured the veiled mystery of “homo factus est” with their hushed dynamic. Sumner Thompson (baritone) sang the bass solo of “Et in spiritum sanctum,” a highly nuanced yet declamatory performance of this piece. The “Confiteor” is, to my mind, the most striking part of Bach’s B Minor Mass, the reduced orchestration mirroring the introspective and personal profession of faith, then bursting forth in full and glorious ripieno on the “Et expecto resurrectionem”; Emmanuel Music captured this shift in mood fabulously, sustaining the fullness through to the cleanly and forcefully executed final “Amen.” The “Sanctus” and “Osanna” were sweeping and definitive in their delivery. Zachary Wilder (tenor), with the collaboration of Vanessa Holroyd on flute, offered a tender and touching “Benedictus.” The “Agnus Dei” was piercing in its introspection, Krista River (mezzo-soprano) demonstrating remarkable support and projection while singing at a piano dynamic. To conclude, the “Dona nobis pacem” built from a tender opening to a solid fortress of music and faith. The entire musical journey was memorable for the insightful reading, the depths of emotion plumbed, and the nuanced phrasings matching music to text throughout.

My quibbles with this performance are few. I would have liked a more careful enunciation of sibilant sounds (a bane of choruses) throughout the performance, especially, from my side-aisle seat, in the tenor section. In the “Domine Deus,” the voices of the two soloists could have blended together more. The attaca of “Cum Sancto Spiritu” could have been more forceful, and the singers on “gloria” in the same movement more sustained. These issues in no way detracted from the power and majesty of the performance as a whole, serving instead to remind us that we mortals rely on the mercy of the divine (including, especially, the Muses) – a sentiment with which Johann Sebastian Bach would most assuredly concur.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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