It seems probable that, like The Art of Fugue, Bach’s B-minor Mass is a legacy work, left by Bach for posterity’s performers to make of it what they will. In theory, then, many interpretations of it are possible, and the accidental programming of two London performances of the Mass within a week, by very different groups, provided a golden opportunity for a comparative critique.
The performance on 8 April by Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki marked the beginning of the ensemble’s two-day residency at The Barbican, and was presented as a full-stage traditional line-up with two desks of each violin, and the bassoons adding to the bass line throughout; the singers – there were 18 of them – stood behind the orchestra.
To anyone who didn’t know the work, it would have come across as a good performance; every note was honed for texture and length (including some very carefully engineered detached paired quavers in places); the band was slick, and the singers well schooled (including in the use of German-accented Latin). Alas, though, it lacked any soul. Indeed, arguably, it was over-engineered – every pencil mark in a copy could almost be heard being executed. It was also very instrument-heavy. Placing the singers behind the large orchestral forces reduced their impact, and throughout it felt as though they were holding back – it was not necessarily about volume, but about presence. The two passages in the Symbolum Nicenum dealing with resurrection, for example (the et resurrexit and the et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum) should sparkle, not only with speed and vivacity, but with the joy of an Easter morning, or with the glory of the last judgement; all that could be said of this performance was that the speed changed, and the trumpets and drums came in; the music was present, but the text was not.
The lack of spark from the choir accentuated, though, the generally excellent performances of the soloists, as by and large, these movements are performed with continuo and solo instruments. Joanne Lunn gave a honey-sweet performance of Laudamus te, and she blended well with Rachel Nicholls in Christe eleison, who, in turn, performed an nicely nuanced duet with Colin Balzer for Domine Deus. Robin Blaze’s three solos were, as expected from such an excellent Bach interpreter, adroitly handled, as were Dominik Wörner’s bass arias, although the famous Quoniam duet with natural horn was perhaps a little too smooth – the horn should always provide a touch of rural raucousness, somehow, and it was lacking. Alas, the high tessitura of the Benedictus occasionally got the better of Colin Balzer, but it is a notoriously challenging movement.
All in all, although there was nothing wrong with the performance, it felt over-worked and over-directed; it was aurally artful, but it failed to move.
The earlier performance by the Feinstein Ensemble, accompanying the London Bach Singers on 2 April at King’s Place was almost a complete contrast. The King’s Place stage is small, and it was thus a one-to-a-part performance: ten singers, and only as many instruments as were needed to cover the parts. There was almost no direction – an occasional nod or tempo-introduction from flute-player Martin Feinstein was all that was needed. Here text was to the fore – the instruments stood or sat behind the singers, and were very much accompanying them; the solos were divided among the ten, so the performance had a fully organic feel: like a woven cloth, the music was created by the warp and weft of individual musicians coming together. Absolutely in contrast to the Barbican performance, this was full of excitement and raw energy: the crucifixus was quiet and menacing; the slow exposition of the counterpoint in the early section of et expecto felt as though each singer was daring the others to top the dissonances; the changes in tempo sparkled, and the trumpets accompanied the voices in soaring glory (special mention must go to Bob Howes, who crafted some magnificently virtuosic timpani passages from just two drums). The performance was nowhere near as directed as that at the Barbican (a slight annoyance being the use of Oxbridge-standard-fallback Italianate Latin for pronunciation, so some of the ‘chiff’ of German consonants was lost), but it was all soul.
The solos, on the whole, were probably not as elegant as those in the Barbican performance (Tim Travers-Brown singing a couple of the alto solos, for example, was somewhat uneven, and Gwilym Bowen was slightly stumped by the same challenges from the tessitura as Colin Balzer), but, again, they demonstrated a completely organic communication between the continuo, the soloist, and the ‘featured’ instruments – here, in the Quoniam, was the magnificently controlled rasp of the natural horn played by Anneke Scott, contrasting perfectly with the gnarly texture of the two bassoons (who played only for this movement), William Townend’s edgy but rounded baritone, and the energetic continuo players; all were working as a unit without any direction, and clearly enjoying every quaver as it was produced. This was the performance that moved the listener to tears, and this was the performance that gave life to Bach’s visionary genius.