Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Mass in B minor review – Collegium Vocale Gent’s take on Bach’s legacy work

14 June 2024

Philippe Herreweghe directs the Belgian ensemble in a performance of restraint and subtle detail.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

We’ll probably never know why Bach created his setting of the words of the Roman Catholic mass, completed a year before his death, but it certainly wouldn’t have been for his own, stolidly Lutheran church, the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Which makes it all the more odd that the influence that seemed to predominate in Collegium Vocale Gent’s account at the Barbican on Friday evening was decidedly no-frills, no-fun, and stoutly of the Reformation – indeed, possibly drawing on Calvin’s strictures against the opulence of the Roman religion, rather than Luther’s more moderate snipes.

Certainly, the performance was full of subtle gestures: the vocal counterpoint throughout was mannered, with the words of each entry separated out to give primacy to the musical material (“Cru… ci… fix… us”), and this was especially noticeable in the fugues; there was plenty of ‘note shaping’ – careful attention to the change in volume of each note in both vocal and instrumental parts, such that phrases – albeit within a limited overall dynamic – were full of shading. There was also subtlety in the orchestral playing (the mellow woodwinds in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei, for example, were nicely blended). But there, sadly – at least in terms of the choral and orchestral sound – it ended. The first half of the concert (consisting of the lengthy Kyrie and the nine section Gloria) seemed to be stuck on legato, with nothing much more than a mezzo-forte dynamic; even the opening section of the Gloria, which should dance along in the dazzle of Bach’s trademark ‘celestial glory needed: book three trumpets’, felt a little ‘nothing to see here’. For sure, there was accurate attention to the rhythm, and some punch in the choral entries, but with the trumpets clearly asked to play down (such that they were absorbed into the general orchestral texture), the whole thing lacked attack and flair: these angels weren’t so much announcing the birth of a Messiah, as marking time until they could knock off early for Christmas.

When the Symbolum Nicenum began after the interval, it felt as though everyone had been at the Sanatogen during the break, as there was energy in that inexorably moving bass line, and the subsequent ‘Et in unum Dominum’ duet (more of the soloists anon) was quite sparky. Alas, though, despite the elegance of those aforementioned syllabic detachments on ‘Crucifixus’ (and on the preceding ‘Et incarnatus’) we were soon back to ‘moderation in all things’, and ‘Et resurrexit’ – which is arguably the most abandoned expression of joy in all of Bach’s choral writing – was simply just a bit louder, again, with the trumpets seemingly under strict instruction not to do anything except play mezzo-forte at the floor, and even the hard-stick thump of the timpani sounded muted. The subsequent pickup of ‘et expecto resurrectionem’ was equally modest in its contrast with the slow, quiet choral suspensions in the previous passage – a lack of contrast exacerbated by the intensity with which these were delivered.

“…there was energy in that inexorably moving bass line, and the subsequent ‘Et in unum Dominum’ duet (more of the soloists anon) was quite sparky…”

There seemed to be several factors at work here. Firstly, this kind of performance was obviously what Herreweghe wanted, and, as he is a seasoned interpreter of Baroque music, one must respect his decisions on performance practice, even if they don’t provide the thrill that is part of the attraction of the work. Secondly was the Barbican Hall itself, which isn’t noted for its acoustic augmentation. Thirdly, there was the complex matter of continuo. There are, of course, arguments for use of just an organ and basso (which is what Herreweghe opted for), but adding a plucked instrument (a harpsichord and/or a theorbo), as some groups do, allows some percussive attack, and it was this attack that was missing throughout the performance; placing the singers behind the instruments didn’t help on this front either, as several of the contrapuntal entries, particular in the upper voices, were swallowed. Lastly, one wonders why Herreweghe (with essentially northern European forces in his ensemble) opted for Italianate Latin pronunciation; the chiff of those Germanic consonants always adds a little extra zest.

It was left, then, to the soloists to add colour to the evening, and all five of them managed this well. Sopranos Dorothee Mields and Hana Blažiková have nicely contrasting voices (the former sweet and bell-like, the latter a more edgy fruitiness), and their ‘Christe’ duet blended beautifully. Countertenor Alex Potter’s voice for ‘Qui sedes’ was perhaps a touch over-blowsy, but his duet with Mields for ‘Et in unum’ was lively, and precise, with an excellent contrast in vocal tone; his ‘Agnus Dei’ was gorgeously focused and intense. The Benedictus is a trial for any tenor, as it needs agility and consistency of tone across the wide range of fleeting notes; Guy Cutting took all this in his stride to deliver a perfect and seamless account. The star of the show, though, was Johannes Kammler, whose baritone voice is just right for Bach – a commanding edge, that is nonetheless full of warm harmonics. His accounts of both ‘Quoniam’ and ‘Et in spiritum’ were packed with energy, excitement, and carefully judged phrasing. The only disappointment in ‘Quoniam’, though was the horn playing: there should be something raw and unrefined about those swooping calls, but Herreweghe was obviously treating the hunting ban seriously, as, with his hand in the instrument’s bell for the entire movement, Bart Cypers was unable to summon anything more than a polite ghost of rural bloodsports.

buy Collegium Vocale Gent MP3s or CDs
Spotify Collegium Vocale Gent on Spotify

More on Collegium Vocale Gent
Mass in B minor review – Collegium Vocale Gent’s take on Bach’s legacy work