A cast of top-notch singers and period instrumentalists assembled at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening (repeating on Sunday afternoon) for Boston Baroque’s performance of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor under the direction of Martin Pearlman. Technically this is a supremely ambitious work: in the sheer virtuosity of its rhythmic and melodic details, in its harmonic and contrapuntal mastery, as well as in the grandeur of its overall plan. Bach sought to surpass himself, his contemporaries, and his forbears in this setting of a liturgical text with a long tradition behind it.
The Mass explores modern as well as retrospective contrapuntal techniques, various vocal and instrumental styles, solo and ensemble writing with and without obbligato instruments, and large-scale and complex scoring. In its first incarnation, the Mass in B Minor was a Missa Brevis, an abbreviated form consisting only of the Kyrie and the Gloria. This was the only kind of Mass done in Lutheran Leipzig, where Bach served as music director of two of the principal churches. Such Masses were also preferred in Dresden, where the court was Catholic but most of the landed gentry remained Lutheran. A performance of the Missa probably took place at a special afternoon concert at the church of St. Sophia in Dresden, where Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s eldest son, was organist. On July 27, 1733, Bach dedicated his Kyrie and Gloria to Friedrich August, elector of Saxony and later king of Poland, as a “small work of that science which I have attained in music.” As Christoph Wolff emphasizes in Johann Sebastian Bach. The Learned Musician, Bach, a much-admired organist, was here presenting himself as no mere performer but a “musical scholar producing works of musical science.” In making the dedication he was hoping for a court title, though he did not receive one until 1736. Bach completed the Mass in 1748-49, adding the movements of the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, some of which, like those of the Kyrie and Gloria, were adapted from earlier compositions.
Putting together this gigantic work with its disparate styles and forces is no mean feat, and Martin Pearlman’s approach to the B Minor Mass seemed calculated to project a sense of unity and dramatic power across widely varying musical textures and genres. In this he was mostly successful, employing brisk tempos and highly articulated phrasing that kept the momentum going from one movement to the next. Occasionally, however, one felt breathless speed overtaking the ability of singers and players to keep up, and hungered for a little more flexibility, a breath here and there. Still, Pearlman and Boston Baroque are to be congratulated on their verve and energy.
In the Kyrie, two fugues in contrasting styles for five-part choir and full obbligato orchestra (but without brasses or timpani) framed a duet for first and second sopranos (Kiera Duffy and Jennifer Rivera) with violin obbligato and continuo accompaniment. After a brief introduction, the orchestra launched into a stately baroque-style fugue subject, its jagged compound melodic line featuring sighing two-note motives that were set off (almost as an additional voice) by Pearlman’s crisp articulation. After the bright D major of the duet, the second Kyrie ventured into the darker key of F-sharp Minor in stile antico manner, evoking Renaissance polyphony but set against a decidedly Baroque “walking” bass line. The opening chorus of the Gloria burst in, full force, with parts for three natural trumpets, timpani, flutes, oboes, bassoons, strings, and continuo in the resounding trumpet key of D major. Although the opening section, in fast triple time, seems to have been adapted from a lost instrumental concerto, it was skillfully incorporated into the movement’s larger architecture, in which expansive movements for choir and orchestra frame solo arias for each concertist of the choir, with an obbligato part awarded to each family of instruments (strings, flutes, reeds, and brass). After the fast opening, a change of pace and a second, gentler fugue on “Et in terra pax.” Jennifer Rivera, mezzo, and Christina Day Martinson, violin, were the soloists in “Laudamus te,” an aria of ornamental arabesques set over a walking bass. Here the tempo seemed a shade too fast as both soloists and ensemble players scurried to keep up with the relentless beat. “Gratias agimus tibi,” a four-part fugue on a chant motive, was taken from an earlier cantata. Kiera Duffy, soprano, and Aaron Sheehan, tenor, were perfectly matched in the gentle roulades of their duet on “Domine Deus.” Playing on a Baroque instrument of exceptionally lovely rounded tone, Christopher Krueger delivered a beautifully articulated flute obbligato that was one of the evening’s highlights. The duet’s quiet minor conclusion led directly into a somber “Qui tollis,” incorporating another chorus from a pre-existing cantata. Contratenor David Daniels was the soloist in the alto aria that followed, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.” With unusual warmth in the upper notes and clarity throughout its range, Daniels’s voice was ideally suited to the part. Gonzalo Ruiz provided the affecting oboe d’amore obbligato in this lilting siciliano. The aria that followed, “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” began with a virtuosic solo for corno da caccia (hunting horn), played by Todd Williams, accompanied by two bassoons (Clayton Zeller-Townson and Marilyn Boenau) that provided the perfect foil to the horn’s thrilling sound. Baritone Jesse Blumberg brought a sweet upper range and incisive rhythmic verve, his singing rivalling the horn in adroit virtuosity. At a near breakneck tempo, the final chorus, a fugue on “Cum sancto spiritu . . . Amen,” concluded the Gloria on a triumphant note.
Like the Gloria, the Credo is a complex of choruses and arias that follow one another in apparently logical sequence. Several parts of the Credo were again derived from Bach’s earlier works; other reflected his assiduous studying, copying, and performing of Masses by composers from Palestrina to his own contemporaries. Thus the opening chorus pairs a motet (“Credo in unum Deum”) in archaic style on the liturgical chant, for five-voice chorus plus two independent violin parts and continuo, with a concertato fugue for four voices and full orchestra. After the duet for soprano (Kiera Duffy) and alto (David Daniels), in which the two voices playfully exchange short motives, three solemn choruses recount the life of Christ from birth to resurrection. The central movement, “Crucifixus,” is a passacaglia with the repeating chromatically descending bass that traditionally spelled mourning in both sacred and secular contexts. “Et resurrexit” is a concerto-like movement in the spirit of the Gloria’s opening chorus. After a solo aria, “Et in spiritum sanctum,” that matched Jesse Blumberg’s ringing baritone with two oboe d’amore, strict imitative counterpoint over a walking bass returned in “Confiteor unum baptisma” (I acknowledge one baptism), harking back to the stile antico manner of the opening Credo. Pearlman brilliantly executed the transition from the slow, chromatically-tinged descent on the words “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum” (And I await the resurrection of the dead) to the triumphant reinterpretation of the same text that opens the following tutti in D major.
Almost all sections of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei derived from earlier works. The Sanctus itself was composed in 1724 for six-voice chorus and requires a third oboe. It opens on a massive curtain of sound in simple harmonies over descending octaves in the bass, followed by a sprightly triple-time fugue on “Pleni sunt coeli.” The Osanna, in the same tempo, was adapted from a secular cantata written to celebrate Friedrich August’s election as King of Poland. Here the chorus regrouped to form two opposing choirs of four parts each. Aaron Sheehan’s sensitivity in the Benedictus matched in expressive beauty Christopher Krueger’s flute obbligato. Bach adapted the Agnus Dei from an earlier cantata as an alto solo with violins and continuo. The soloist David Daniels delivered an intensely moving interlude before the final “Dona nobis pacem.”