Under the masterful hands of Philippe Herreweghe those present at the opening concert of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2011 (as well as those listening on BBC Radio 3) experienced a serenely beautiful performance, one that left no doubt as to the depth of the conductors knowledge of the music and its hidden treasures. However, I dont think I was the only member of the audience to find it almost too beautiful, too respectful while it would be churlish to say that there was anything at fault with the performance, I simply yearned for a bit of risk-taking and excitement.
This was certainly one of the most micro-managed performances of the B minor Mass that I have ever witnessed, as performer or audience: it seems that with Herreweghes encyclopaedic knowledge of every detail contained within Bachs score comes a desire to direct the execution of each of those details. Every chorus entry received its own gesture and look, as did instrumental interjections at times it appeared as if Herreweghe could hardly restrain himself from actually taking a violin or oboe from its owners grasp and playing it himself.
There certainly were hair-raising moments: speeds were refreshingly quick, which both aided soloists breathing and made the sometimes drearily-performed Kyrie II and Gratias agimus/Dona nobis pacem wonderfully light and transparent, although it seemed that the Laudamus te was a three-way tempo battle between Herreweghe, soprano Hana Blaikov and leader Sophie Gent, with the two ladies winning on points.
Blaikov was, for me, the best of the vocal soloists (all of whom stepped out from within the chorus), although the use of two sopranos meant that her contribution was over long before the interval. Counter-tenor Damien Guillon a former pupil of Andreas Scholl who, at first listen, sounds eerily similar to his teacher has a bright, clear, strong sound that blended well with soprano Dorothee Mields in the Et in unum Dominum and which also made one sit up and listen with interest in the Qui sedes and the Agnus Dei (although some hints of fatigue started to creep in towards the end of the latter).
Tenor Thomas Hobbs seemed to be having a bit of an off day, his normally ringing upper register sounding strained in the Domine Deus (with Mields) and the solo Benedictus (which, coming towards the end of the performance, might be put down to tiredness from singing all the preceding choruses). Both these movements were highlighted by the exquisite playing of flautist Patrick Beuckels, full of character and expertly sensitive to the words and breathing of his vocal colleagues.
The orchestra were on excellent form as well as Beuckels, Teunis van der Zwart on corno da caccia and oboist Marcel Ponseele produced top-drawer solos and the choir of the Collegium Vocale Gent, some hesitant soprano entries aside, similarly so.
Nothing was out of place with the performance, yet a greater, brighter energy seemed to be almost bursting at the seams to be released by Herreweghe, but his view of the piece demanded restraint while some of the longer build-up sections were superbly marshalled and crescendos managed perfectly, every final chord and climactic point was allowed just a split-second release before being immediately brought back down with a calming motion from the maestro. It was a fitting tribute to Bach, whose music was appearing in the Lufthansa Festival for the first time since 2008 (yes, you read that correctly), but I felt that it could have been so much more thrilling and fulfilling.
Further details of St. John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at www.sjss.org.uk