in: Reviews

March 23, 2014

Patron Saint Reigns at Bach’s Birthday

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The Boston Cecilia decisively concluded its first season with new Music Director Nicholas White and celebrated the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach with a great performance of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor at Jordan Hall on Friday. The moderate-size chorus of 54 was accompanied by a period-instrument orchestra led by the redoubtable Daniel Stepner. White obtained a lean, clear choral sound from all the sections; the women used a small vibrato that achieved that elusive middle ground between the chaste sound of boys and the richer but more opaque quality of an opera chorus which would have obscured Bach’s feats of polyphony. Furthermore, painstaking intonation resulted in innumerable moments of beauty: Picardy thirds at final cadences, for instance, were frequently luminous. Diction throughout was exemplary (why should this be the exception rather than the rule in so many choral concerts?). White’s and the chorus’s careful attention to dynamics and ability to use them in both finely nuanced fashion and sudden contrasts resulted in as dramatic a reading of the Mass as I can recall. It was an early-instruments performance that avoided dogmatism, unafraid to be sometimes expressive in early-20th-century style. Another asset was a fine group of soloists: sopranos Erika Vogel and Sonja Tengblad, altos Clare McNamara and Reggie Mobley, tenors Marcio de Oliveira and Stefan Reed, and basses Bradford Gleim and James Dargan. And finally, it was a delightful surprise to see all the soloists participating in the choruses as well (one hopes they were compensated accordingly!). They were seldom perceptible as individual voices, but with their greater projection they likely lent increased clarity to complex counterpoint; certainly Mobley, as the only countertenor among the otherwise all-female alto section, gave it a greater degree of independence than usual, due to his different timbre.

In the first Kyrie eleison we heard what was to come in the occasional powerful crescendi and diminuendi, arising logically from the music, which never compromised balances. If the chorus’s articulation (as opposed to the orchestra’s) was occasionally over-emphatic, it was certainly preferable to the opposite alternative. White sensibly did not follow Bach’s specification of two solo sopranos in the Christe elesion duet, since in practice the Soprano II’s tessitura is better suited to a mezzo; even so, Vogel’s bright, forward sound contrasted with McNamara’s more mellow instrument resulting, regrettably, in the fairly frequent covering up of the Soprano II line. Both singers, however, shaped phrases pleasingly and had all the requisite agility when needed. The second Kyrie featured flawless tuning through Bach’s sometimes dense chromaticisim, and the truly stark dynamic contrasts were arresting: now a humble plea for mercy, now a cri de coeur.

The Gloria in excelsis deo fairly danced with its joyful, 1-in-a-bar schwung. White favors fast tempi from time to time, but the chorus showed no strain, tossing off the acrobatic writing of the opening section and the extended demanding passagework of Cum sancto spiritu. The arias were mostly felicitous collaborations of singer and instrumental obligato, particularly Sonja Tengblad with violinist Daniel Stepner in Laudamus te and Clare McNamara with oboist Stephen Hammer in Qui sedes.

In the Credo the duet of  Tengblad and countertenor Reggie Mobley, Et in unum, was another superb collaboration as the two tossed phrases back and forth and matched messe di voce (expressive rise and fall on one note). The Crucifixus did not open with the usual mood of subdued reflection: we shared in Christ’s anguish. Anacruses grew relentlessly to emphatic downbeats until, at passus est (“he suffered death and was buried”), a sudden hush had a stunning effect, and the final two phrases were profoundly moving with a substantial slowing and an intense ppp. White let the woeful silence hang in the room instead of immediately jumping into Et resurrexit, something I’ve waited seemingly my whole life for a conductor to do! When the outburst of joy happened, it was no less great for having been (slightly) delayed. Again, the chorus’s virtuosity was astonishing, especially the basses’ in their moment in the sun. This section’s signature triplets were always clear and coruscating, both in voices and trumpets. Bradford Gleim’s Et in spiritum was handsome of sound and graceful in phrasing. In Confiteor the chorus’s pure sound first made the counterpoint pellucid, then later made the aching dissonances in the sudden adagio shocking. Finally, another virtuosic chorus of driving rhythm, Et expecto resurrectionem, capped off the Credo. Only the trumpets had a little trouble with White’s uncompromising tempo while coping with both a fiercely demanding trumpet part and period instruments. The last series of tempo transitions (confiteor—peccatorumet expecto) is tricky, but a listener wouldn’t have known it from this performance—they were seamless.

The Sanctus had abundant majesty and nobility, and the choral and string basses’ striding octave figures (Sanctus, Dominus) gave extra authority. Clear counterpoint again characterized the effervescent fugue of Pleni sunt coeli. As soon as it was over, hard on its heels the Hosanna brought another display piece, but these performers seemed tireless, maintaining clear enunciation, pure intonation, and vigorous rhythm that never crossed the line into tight push-ahead-at-all-costs. Tenor Stefan Reed and flutist Christopher Krueger gave us an exquisite Benedictus, both sculpting phrases lovingly with beautiful tone. In intimate settings like this, one could also appreciate the art that conceals art of the excellent continuo players, organist Barbara Bruns, cellist Guy Fishman, and bassist Anne Trout. The reprise of the Hosanna was equally impressive.

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Curtain Call from Friday night (George Imirzian photo)

The Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) is possibly the plum assignment among the soloists, and Reggie Mobley treated it accordingly. He gently caressed his difficult, high first entry, making it a most moving, humble appeal. Yet when it recurred later, he made it much more urgent and powerful. Throughout there were countless opportunities for the countertenor to display his lovely messa di voce, and I doubt he missed a single one. Many of us in the audience had moist eyes and a lump in the throat for most of the aria.

The concluding Dona nobis pacem (“Give us peace”) choral fugue also began as a quiet plea, but with carefully planned rise-fall-rise-some-more dynamics, it maintained the unusually dramatic quality of the entire performance. This movement doesn’t always have the feeling of summing up the whole work, but it did here. The final entry of the fugue subject in the basses was electrifying, as the chorus moved ineluctably to its triumphant D-major final chord. If I may be permitted a cliché, this was one of those rare life-affirming performances serving to remind us why we are musicians or concertgoers and why the live event can never be supplanted. Under the custodianship of Nicholas White, the future looks bright for The Boston Cecilia.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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