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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 41: Johann Sebastian BACH, Mass in B minor (assembled c1747-9), Soloists, The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 15 August 2004 (AN)
Katharine Fuge (soprano)
Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
‘I think he saw himself as an artisan – a very good artisan – but not a "great" composer…I think he had a sense of his own worth as a keyboard player and as a servant of the church. We do, of course, have the Art of Fugue and the B Minor Mass which might be interpreted as having an eye on posterity. But I prefer to see them as just a personal testimony: this is what I’ve achieved, this is the best of me.’
In this analysis of arguably the greatest composer in the history of classical music, Sir John Eliot Gardiner confers nothing of the superhuman: he belongs to the camp that views Bach as nothing more than a brilliantly resourceful pragmatist who cultivated an inherited musical language to meet immediate compositional duties. A justifiable opinion, but one that ought not be allowed to impinge negatively on any live musical presentation.
The trouble with Gardiner’s emphasis on ‘Bach the craftsman’ and rejection of ‘Bach the divinely inspired’ is that it translates at the expense of much of the affective potential of Bach’s score. The earnestness and expertise of the Monteverdi Choir (est.1964) and period-instrument English Baroque Soloists (est.1978) downgrade Bach’s monumental Mass conglomerate to the status of a moderately exceptional concert piece.
Of course Bach was a man like any other – he loved to make music in many senses of the word (creating no fewer than twenty children and many more musical works!) and earned a tough living from the hands of his aristocratic patrons. But it is a fool that imagines an eternity of accolades from connoisseurs and laymen through the ages attributable to the mechanics of a mere master-carpenter. It is not the composition of materialistic phenomena that drove artist and critic Roger Fry to confess that "Bach almost persuades me to be a Christian". Certainly not. Bach moves us in ways that cannot be put into words, his music touches the sublime and sensual at once, his music speaks to saint and sinner alike.
This Proms performance was too preoccupied with the sanctity of historicism to unleash any passion. The result was as miscellaneous as the genesis of the B Minor Mass, which Bach prepared during the late 1740s using his previously composed Kyrie, Gloria and Credo. Voices and instruments were not always equals, as for example in the opening Kyrie where an almighty sound from the choir led into a tame and lifeless instrumental exposition of the main melody through barely audible oboes and superficial basses.
Orchestral lethargy prevailed, but less obtrusively so in its accompanying role to the blissful soprano duet. Katharine Fuge and Sara Mingardo made wonderful playmates, with the deeper-bodied contralto complimenting the sweet timbres of the purer soprano. The return of the Kyrie chorus was good at first but soon after lost definition and wallowed in blandness.
Sudden dynamic dips in the Gloria seemed out of place in the context of a uniform lack of emotion but, to Gardiner’s credit, the surface organisation and precision was consistent. Moreover, when the forces came together in sustained collaboration, such as for the Gratias chorus, the effect was thrilling.
Among orchestra, choir and soloists too, there were weaknesses that pulled the performance earthbound. The flute was a particular embarrassment to the English Baroque ensemble, failing to pull the heart-strings during its crucial solo alongside soprano and tenor – negotiating each note as though it were its last, melodic lines had no hope of breathing easily.
Mezzo-soprano and Proms débutante Renata Pokupić failed to deliver on both solo occasions: the latter instance was unforgivable, as it fell on one of the most beautiful movements, the penultimate Agnus Dei from Bach’s 1735 Ascension Oratorio. At the time, the sacrificial lamb seemed a small price to pay compared with the tight, warbling and uncontrolled mezzo voice-box whose energy was all but spent on melodramatic physical gesticulations!
At last some relief from the Credo onwards, with an invigorating burst of life and bite. The choir enunciated more clearly and made an exceptional effort for the Benedictus, no doubt motivated by their temporary competitive spread into two sections. Bass and tenor soloists were accomplished, even if the former soloist exposed his true baritone identity with mild discomfort in the lower registers.
The concert was good. Gardiner maintained a strict baton and commands were followed dutifully. Instruments played unanimously and in keeping with the ‘period’ etiquette and the vocal quality and agility of choir and soloists was generally excellent. A few individual frustrations did not thwart the picture – to be precise, a watercolour in pastel shades. I was not moved, nor was I impassioned. One serving of Bach à la Gardiner will suffice, thank you.