Normally, to proclaim the best thing in a concert to be the chorus would be to damn it with faint praise.But when that chorus happens to be The Bach Choir and the concert a performance of the composers Mass in B Minor, it only feels right that that group should stand out.
Rehearsed to perfection, the choir commanded our attention from the start as it burst in with the opening Kyrie eleison!, its sound bold and striking, solid yet textured. Over the course of the evening, it also proved its versatility by showing all the required sensitivity in pieces such as Qui tollis peccata mundi, a heartfelt plea for mercy.
Each section of the choir also possessed its own distinct sound. The sopranos were particularly impressive, their voices being strident yet pure, while the altos remained focused and proved equally adept at tackling the higher and lower passages. The tenors showed great attention to detail regarding tempi and dynamics, while the basses provided a sure, yet resonant, foundation. Altogether, the parts interacted well, and no better than in the two choruses that began the Symbolum Nicenum, the lower parts skilfully underlying the sopranos as the former moved onto the second chorus while the latter continued with the first.
On this occasion, the highly accomplished orchestra Florilegium did not quite match the choirs output, although there were reasons for this. I suspect that its rehearsal time was far more limited, and conductor David Hill seemed to concentrate on shaping the sound of the choir rather than the orchestra. The sound was frequently polished nonetheless, and the trumpets in Gloria in excelsis Deo among the best Ive heard, but there were still a few moments of hesitancy and uncertainty.
Among the soloists, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas gave an intelligent and insightful performance of Laudamus te, but although her phrasing was perfect, her voice lacked the pure, light edge that is so normally prevalent in it. Tenor James Gilchrist gave a sensitive and tender rendering of Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, while baritone Neal Daviess solos were something of a mixed bag. His performance of Et in Spiritum Sanctum was skilfully managed, but Quoniam tu solus sanctus did not seem the right piece to show his voice at its best.
The one soloist who truly stood out was countertenor Iestyn Davies. Paradoxically, his ethereal voice was ideally suited to bringing out the reverential nature of the words in Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, while in the latter stages of Agnus Dei it suddenly hit an even more spiritual realm.
But although Iestyn Daviess performance could hardly be faulted, this was ultimately a night for the choir.