in: Reviews

November 21, 2016

Koopman Leads a Crisp B-Minor Mass

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Tan Koopman (file photo)

Ton Koopman (file photo)

On behalf of the Boston Early Music Festival, the wholly engaging Bach scholar and conductor Ton Koopman came to St. Paul’s Church Cambridge Friday with a large contingent of historically informed singers and instrumentalists to perform J.S. Bach’s remarkable assemblage of works now entitled Mass in B Minor, BWV 232. The 1733 version of the Kyrie and Gloria opened, before we heard the portions that stemmed from the 1748-1749 expansion of this material with the Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem.

Robert Mealy’s informative program note explained in helpful detail how Bach first combined this extraordinary set of separate pieces into a free-standing “Missa” for reasons unknown, and how today the composer would have been “…very surprised to find his Mass given complete in a concert hall…To hear a Kyrie and Gloria, take an intermission, and then experience the last bits of Mass text is something that simply wouldn’t happen in Bach’s day. It was only with the publication of the (Bach)…Hohe Messe in the 1840s that (following the fashion of grand mass performances inaugurated with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) Bach’s Mass in B Minor began to be heard as a performance piece…”

What remains so remarkable, to me at least, is how despite all of the fragmentary nature of its components, this great corpus functions so well, musically and dramatically, in its present form. When led by a conductor with an ear for dramatic arc and organizational structure—which in part describes Koopman—the Mass becomes a unified and powerful reflection of Bach’s primary devotion to “to the glory of God.” To believers and non-believers alike, this work undertakes a spiritual journey, which undeniably bolsters and affirms faith in listeners and performers. Somehow, we are all the better for having heard and performed this.

Koopman brought 35 instrumentalists and a choir of 28 choral scholars. Fifteen members of the Juillard415 program (J) and 20 from the Royal Conservatoire The Hague (RC), playing side by side, populated the orchestra. The singers drawn from the Royal Conservatoire were prepared by Janjoost van Elburg of The Hague, with language coach William Hobbs from Juilliard. There was no denying that a very specific approach clearly agreed to by all participants, would be heard.

Koopman is ebullient, yet he so focuses on his objectives that the combination of these two positives result in concerts that have, in my experience, an uncanny way of persuading all in the hall that his way with things is without question the way things “ought” to go. While I was not convinced that everything I heard was as I’d like always to remember, I was always engaged.The skill of the players and singers impressed, and once again, I was overwhelmed by the genius of the composer. Koopman opens a unique lens through which shines a beguiling image of the music he performs.

The program cited seven vocal soloists: Aldona Bartnik, soprano; Kara Dugan, mezzo-soprano; Aleksan Chobanov, alto (counter tenor), Joshua Blue and Tigran Matinyan, tenors, and Berend Eijkhout and Dominick Belavy, basses.

Several soloists from within the orchestra deserve mention for extraordinary arias. Noyuri Hazama, violin, (RC) was outstandingly accurate and sensitive with her obbligato challenges in the Gloria’s “Laudamus te,”oboe d’amore players Aga Mazur (RC), Fiona Last (J), and Karlijn Oost (RC) throughout the evening, Kaci Cummings (J) natural horn and the rollicking bassoonists Neil Chen (J), and Luke Toppin (RC) in the “Quoniam,” and Mili Chang, whose traverso flute playing in the Credo’sBenedictus” was fluid, elegant, and well, just lovely.

Of the solo vocalists, I was particularly impressed by Berend Eijkhout, baritone, who brought extraordinary accuracy, elegant tone, and complete mastery of the many intricacies of his two demanding arias, the above mentioned “Quoniam,” and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” from the Credo. I also enjoyed the timbre and elegance that male alto Aleksan Chobanov brought to his “Qui sedes” aria. I admired the freshness of tone and facility of technique that tenor Joshua Blue brought to his “Domine Deus” duet with the fluent and focused tone of Aldona Bartnik, soprano. All of the other vocal soloists were more than up to their several challenges, in particular mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan, whose burnished tone was a good match to her many prominent moments, both in duet and as soloist.

A successful performance of the B Minor Mass, with all the above, ultimately relies on the chorus. Of this particular choir, I was especially impressed with how the individual voices within each section blended, and how utterly together they sang the many twists and turns of their challenging vocal lines. The soprani and mezzo-soprani were especially well integrated and brilliant. Koopman required the producing of a somewhat straight European tone, and the employment of a frequent crescendo—diminuendo swell. While I have no doubt that the singers and Koopman followed an established version of historically informed choral expression, I must admit that after a while I found this latter “affect” tiresome.

Of my very few other regrets was Koopman’s frequent tendency to push tempi to the very edge of performability. There was also an absence of emotion. Though everything was admirably crisp and clean, I remained unmoved. Other’s “HIP” performances can be spiritual, emotional, and moving, without violating any received precepts.

Listeners and and performers cherish Bach’s genius, his unshakeable faith, his extraordinary musical creativity, his embodiment so often of the sublime. I know that this is what Koopman and his talented forces meant to present to us in their admirable way. Any valid performance of this lofty composition occasions feelings of privilege, and this one certainly attained that level. All in attendance felt inspired by so great a work so ably and devotedly conveyed.  

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.

3 Comments

  1. Not everyone in attendance felt so inspired. To say that “there was also an absence of emotion” is to footnote a major shortcoming of the performance. Also, from my perspective in the sixth row near the center, the performance lacked detail, with the high strings and sopranos dominating. The beautiful woodwind parts were almost inaudible in the opening Kyrie, and only when they came forward and performed next to the soloists could they be properly heard. I wondered if the group had taken the time to work out the right balances in the resonant acoustic of St. Paul’s. The natural horns and trumpets splattered in ways that took me back to the early days of the early music movement.

    Although I too admired most of the vocal soloists, the violin soloist, and the continuo section, I thought this was a deeply disappointing performance and far below the usual high standard of the BEMF.

    Comment by Rob — November 21, 2016 at 8:13 pm

  2. Hear, hear, Rob! I don’t know you, though it’s an odd coincidence that I too was sitting in the 6th row, center section (you could have been sitting next to me, for all I know). I couldn’t agree more about the performance. I was so frustrated at not being able to hear the detail in the strings section (the whole orchestra often sounded faint and muddy when they could be heard at all). I was particularly disappointed with the ‘Christe Eleison’ and the ‘Domine Deus’. At intermission I switched to the 20th row on the right side, which was only a bit better, but it was still so frustrating that I left the performance right before the ‘Crucifixus,’ dreading a weak ‘Et Resurrexit.’ I was wholly unmoved.

    I did notice that several people stood up and walked out during the music in Part One, not between numbers but surprisingly during the actual music. Many more left at intermission. On my own way out I found a BEMF representative, Brian Stuart, and lodged my complaint about the unhearability of the performance, adding that I would never again attend a music performance at St. Paul’s.

    Ever since first hearing Bach’s Mass as a teenager (under Herman Scherchen in the early 1950s) I have been unutterably moved by scores of other terrific performances over the years, as well. I have always admired Ton Koopman’s work, but this rendition (when I could hear anything) left me totally cold. I urged Brian Stuart to tell the BEMF director to hire a regular concert hall for such performances, unless an acoustically suitable church venue can be found.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 22, 2016 at 1:29 pm

  3. This performance is a disappointment for its price and its musicians and conductor. The tempo was way too fast. Whether it goes all the way “to the very edge of performability” I am not sure, but I am quite sure that it goes way above the edge of enjoyability. And the reverberation in the church was disastrous. I strongly recommend BEMF to use a concert hall or church that has much better acoustics. I love St. Paul for liturgical services and its boys’ worship choir, but the BEMF doesn’t seem to have done a good job selecting the appropriate venue that works for the music. I will have to think twice before going back to St. Paul for musical performances in the future; so that is a lesson learned.

    Comment by Sam — November 26, 2016 at 10:38 am

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