IN: Reviews

A Monumental Quandary

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The so-called B Minor Mass of Johann Sebastian Bach is universally acknowledged to contain some of the greatest and most powerful music ever written to the texts of the Roman Catholic Mass Ordinary, from the mind, soul, and pen of one of music history’s supreme creators. And yet, it is a problematic, uncomfortable work, full of unresolved questions as to its composer’s ultimate purpose, uncertain concerning its optimum performance practice, and very difficult to produce as a single entity. Handel and Haydn Society’s April 5th performance, uniting a chorus of professional singers, mostly-excellent soloists, a period orchestra including some distinguished virtuosi, and a well-regarded Bach specialist at the helm, provided a welcome opportunity to experience Bach’s monumental achievement, too rarely heard compared to some other repertoire cornerstones of Western choral music.

Bach never gave a global title to his late-life assemblage of musical settings for the Ordinary. This anthology includes newly composed movements, choral movements from much earlier in his career (the heaven-storming Sanctus), and recycled ‘parody’ elements, both choral and soloistic, originally with German texts, from earlier cantatas. Inevitably, within this semi-transcendant patchwork, we find a multiplicity of styles and genres, from the austere, hieratic Stile Antico fugal movements (second Kyrie, Credo, Confiteor) to deeply affecting, almost pietistic solo arias (Benedictus, Agnus Dei). When Bach brought all these disparate elements together, was he intending to leave some sort of testament or summing-up of his art, as with his Art of the Fugue? Did he envision a performance of the entire compilation at some wealthy Catholic court, Dresden or elsewhere, thereby augmenting his reknown beyond the provincial walls of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche? Or, going blind and sensing his career approaching its end, did Bach intend the folders containing these Ordinary settings as an Apologia pro vita sua, for the eyes and ears of God? Or was some combination of all of these motivations at work?

To these questions we have no definitive answer. Nor can any one performance of this assembled work answer all the historical questions, or resolve all the issues of performance practice, then and now, or (most important)  all the music’s spiritual challenges, in a conclusive way. Every single offering of this music has been, and will be, provisional.

Hana Blazikova, Masaaki Suzuki, and Olivia Vermeulen (Sam Brewer photo)

Bach himself, as far as we know, never heard his final word on the Latin Mass. The manuscripts remained in their folders for years after the composer’s death, with various excerpts being heard in public in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first performance of Bach’s compilation in toto did not take place until 1859.

Within our own span of consciousness, and leaving to one side the elephantine approaches personified in the recent past by such as Karajan and Karl Richter, the historical performance/early music movement has offered up a number of proposed solutions to the magnificent quandary that is the ‘B minor Mass.’ For just one example, I remember, about a generation ago, a much-discussed, genuinely unpleasant performance at Jordan Hall featuring one stressed-out solo singer per part.

The current H+H production embraces many aspects of the historical performance approach, yet in some essential ways it remains resolutely within the 19th-century perspective. We hear Bach’s music in a large concert hall, rather than a church, outside of the confessional liturgy that give the sometimes rebarbative, legalistic Credo clauses their raison d’être.  Thirty-four choristers participate, a much smaller number than that favored in late-Victorian and early modern times, but arguably more than a Bach-period, 18th century ensemble might have employed. The soloists remain distant and separate from the choir, sitting in chairs at the right and left extremes of the stage, and only rising to sing at their designated moments. The baroque reeds and flutes occasionally seem overwhelmed by the volume of singing in the choral tuttis. The whole enterprise is led by a ‘symphonic’ conductor standing in the middle before the assembled forces, albeit the widely respected and vigorous Masaaki Suzuki.

We are in a compromised situation, and how not to be? Yet we experienced some wonderful moments of grace, most remarkably perhaps in the solo passages. Soprani Hannah Blazikova and Olivia Vermeulen both have lovely sounds, and were well-matched and expressive in the Christe Eleison. Vermeulen sang equally well in the Laudamus Te, but that movement would have been more effective had concertmaster/soloist Aislinn Nosky turned towards rather than away from the singer, engaging with her in the dialogue of love and joy that is implicit in Bach’s supernally beautiful writing. Tenor Shimon Yoshida and principal flautist Emi Ferguson shone together during the Benedictus; I consider Ferguson’s playing here and during her other obligatto moments on a par with Bart Kuijken’s on Gustave Leonhardt’s classic 1985 CD recording for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. Countertenor Tim Mead came into his own during the Agnus Dei; his singing, along with Yoshida’s, gave the evening’s second half its emotional center.

Suzuki, conducting with one injured arm in a sling, provided nonetheless commitment and energy to the whole. Abjuring Romantic precedent, he favors short phrase lengths, perhaps at times too short given the concert hall acoustic, and détaché articulations (Kyrie E – le – e – e -i – son). This listener was not always convinced by his choice of tempi. Suzuki sought for dramatic excitement in the climactic choral movements with trumpets and drums, but these were in my view often simply too fast, with a corresponding lack of transparency and even at times with an unsettling measure of rhythmic instability (please, choral basses, do refrain tomorrow Sunday from accelerating in the Sanctus). One wishes, especially during moments of dense, fugal choral writing, to hear the wheels of the cosmos turning regularly and inexorably. Such was not always the case on Friday night.

The last moments of the performance were among the best. Following the aforementioned Agnus Dei, the ensemble returned for the magnificent Dona Nobis Pacem fugue, and here Suzuki found the right, quasi-cosmic tempo, as he built the intensity of the choral and instrumental entrances towards the final, affirmative D major chord. Having been bathed in Bach’s presence for two hours of singing and playing, the audience cheered, and cheered.

Joel Cohen is director of Camerata Mediterranea and music director emeritus of The Boston Camerata. He likes opera, sometimes.

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  1. I attended the Sunday afternoon concert. It is a work I know well, having been a chorister for a performance in New York a few years ago. The first half struck me as even more disjointed than its structure requires. I agree that the short, almost staccato phrasing of the Kyrie was excessive in that acoustic. The tempi never seemed settled; there was always a sense of struggle. The normally chrystalline instruments of the H&H orchestra sounded muddy.

    But after intermission, it all came together for me: the tempi made more sense, the architecture of the fugues was brought out beautifully, the drama of the Credo was exciting, and the more intimate moments were magical. I found myself settling in, breathing more fully, entranced.

    As the review says, the Dona Nobis Pacem was the pinnacle; from the opening notes, the chorus and orchestra did not merely sing about peace, they embodied it, in a perfectly controlled slow crescendo to the sublime end.

    Comment by Karen G. Krueger — April 7, 2024 at 7:45 pm

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