Johann Sebastian Bach never actually heard his Mass in B Minor. Boston has been more fortunate of late. The Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music gave the piece in 2011, the Handel and Haydn Society in 2013, the Boston Cecilia and Chorus pro Musica in 2014. Last fall, we had Boston Baroque and then a Boston Early Music Festival presentation led by Ton Koopman. Thursday at Symphony Hall, it was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s turn, under music director Andris Nelsons.
Now that historically informed interpretations of Baroque music are the fashion, we rarely hear Bach’s masterpiece done by big orchestras anymore. The BSO’s most recent performance in Symphony Hall was in 2001, under Seiji Ozawa; John Oliver led the one before that, in 1985. For the orchestra’s last Tanglewood reading, you have to go back to 1967, when Erich Leinsdorf was the music director.
“Big orchestra” is, of course, a relative term. For the Oratorio Society of New York in 1927, Walter Damrosch engaged 500 singers. Handel and Haydn Society concerts of the early 1950s got that down to 150 or so. By the time Otto Klemperer made his EMI recording, in 1967, the number was 48, with an orchestra to match. These days, period-instrument forces tend to top out at 30 singers and 30 instrumentalists. So I was curious to see how far Nelsons would go in the direction of “authenticity.”
As it turned out, not very. The orchestra numbered 44 and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by its new director James Burton, 116. What was more surprising were Nelsons’s tempos. Klemperer’s recording, the most expansive one I know, runs 135 minutes. Period-instrument recordings like Harry Christophers’s with the Sixteen and Martin Pearlman’s with Boston Baroque average around 105. Nelsons’s reading checked in at 109. You mightn’t think forces this large — especially a choir this large — could manage such speeds, but Thursday’s execution had fervor as well as weight.
At any speed, Bach’s greatest-hits album — completed in 1749, the year before his death, it borrows liberally from previous works — is a challenge. It’s designed to showcase his mastery of everything from stile antico to Empfindsamer Stil. The Baroque-style fugue in the first “Kyrie eleison” is followed by Palestrina-like Renaissance polyphony in the second, and in the Credo, a plainchant cantus firmus melody acts as a walking bass, a pilgrim asserting his faith. The chorus ranges from sober to ecstatic. It conveys an assurance of general salvation; the soloists, on the other hand, are plagued by guilt and doubt as they deal, often in a minor key, with the sections of the Mass relating to Christ. There’s a lot of dancing, too: you might make out a polonaise in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” of the Gloria, a siciliana in the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” of the Credo, a passepied in the “Osana in excelsis” of the Sanctus, perhaps even a réjouissance in the “Et resurrexit” of the Credo.
The chorus’s opening “Kyrie eleison” was mild, and the exquisitely molded orchestral build-up that followed led me to think that Nelsons’s interpretation was going to be a meticulous exploration of the music at the expense of the text. That proved not to be the case. The chorus was transcendent throughout, with pellucid enunciation; from the back row of Symphony Hall’s second balcony, I could register the hushed “sepultus est” of the “Crucifixus” with no difficulty. I was surprised to see everyone on book — the TFC usually sings from memory — but it didn’t seem to matter: faces were raised to Nelsons rather than buried in the score.
The Gloria erupted out of the F-sharp-major conclusion of the second “Kyrie eleison,” fast, exuberant, and swinging. Nelsons then executed a hairpin turn of mood into the hushed “Et in terra pax.” The TFC was serene in the “Gratias agimus tibi”; it seemed dazzled by radiance in the “Qui tollis,” and then at the end of the Gloria, there was another startling explosion into the jubilant “Cum Sancto Spiritu.”
The Credo, like the Kyrie, started calmly, as if the confession of faith were a matter-of-fact exercise, but Nelsons had just half the TFC singing at this point; when the full chorus burst in with the “Credo in unum Deum” that starts the “Patrem omnipotentem,” the result was electrifying. The “Et incarnatus est” was grave, almost hypnotic; the passacaglia of the “Crucifixus” was a study in dark agony; the jubilant “Et resurrexit” was keen in rhythm without ever sounding brusque or clipped. Bach begins the “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” as a continuation of the “Confiteor”; here it began in fear and trembling, as if hardly daring to hope, before letting loose in exultation. The “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” with its swaying triplets, made a joyful noise, and there was another nimble transition into the 3/8 “Pleni sunt coeli.”
The four vocal soloists — soprano Malin Christensson, mezzo Christine Rice, tenor Benjamin Bruns, and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann — were less gratifying. Their voices sturdy, they sang earnestly. But whereas tempos on the order of those taken by Klemperer afford ample room for expression, the current style is less accommodating. In the Gloria, it was the soloists’ instrumental partners, all standing, who stood out. Elizabeth Rowe’s sweet-toned flute was more pastoral than Christensson and Bruns in the “Domine Deus”; Robert Sheena’s oboe d’amore outshone Rice in the “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”; Richard Sebring’s descant horn had more bite than Müller-Brachmann in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Matters improved after intermission: Müller-Brachmann in “Et in Spiritum Sanctum,” with its triple time suggesting the Trinity and its wind accompaniment honoring the Holy Spirit; Bruns, again accompanied by Rowe, conveying the loneliness of the one who came in the name of the Lord in the “Benedictus”; Rice a kind of mater dolorosa in the “Agnus Dei,” which could have been drawn from a Bach Passion.
The orchestra more than held its own against the large choral component. James David Christie as the continuo organist provided the necessary firm foundation. The playing overall was recessed but not redundant; everything was audible. You cannot have a B-Minor Mass without splendid squealing from the trumpets; this was provided by Thomas Rolfs, Benjamin Wright, and Michael Martin, playing on modern instruments but channeling their Baroque predecessors.
Conducting with a score but no baton, Nelsons opted to sit when the chorus wasn’t singing. He was focused throughout, however; he seems able to look everywhere at once, like hundred-eyed Argos, and the effect on his musicians is palpable. This B-Minor Mass combined mass and forward motion, with no sacrifice in clarity or feeling. I have not heard it better.
Nelsons and the BSO will repeat the work Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday and Sunday. And that’s not the end of the B-Minor Mass season: the Cantata Singers will essay it February 24th at Jordan Hall and February 26th at Cary Hall in Lexington.