Recently, I reviewed
a recording by Peter Seymour and the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists
of Bach’s St. John Passion. This recording of the B
Minor Mass was made not long afterwards and in the same venue.
I was decidedly uncomfortable with the speeds that Seymour adopted
for most of the chorales in that St John performance. There
are some challenging speeds in this present performance too
but, for the most part, I am less disconcerted this time around.
For the St. John Seymour used a small choir of just
twenty singers (5/5/4/6). For the Mass he utilises a much larger
choir of fifty-seven (18/18/10/11). Purists might well argue
that this means it’s not a ‘period’ performance, despite the
presence of period instruments. They may well be right but I
find Seymour’s decisions as to the scale of the performance
and the forces employed pretty convincing.
The very opening of the work may startle you. Seymour is brisk
and business-like in the way he dispatches the first four bars
– too much so for my taste – but the Bärenreiter vocal score
may imply a justification for this since there is no tempo marking
over those first bars but bar 5 is marked Largo, suggesting,
perhaps, a slower speed. Thereafter the first chorus, Kyrie
I, settles down to a perfectly conventional speed. I’m afraid,
however, that I simply can’t agree with the speed adopted for
Kyrie II. Granted, it’s merely marked Alla breve but
I calculate Seymour’s speed to be about 96 beats to the minute
and he whips through the music in just 2:21. By contrast, Sir
John Eliot Gardiner, no sluggard, brings the movement in at
a much more realistic 3:30 in his 1985 DG Archiv recording.
Thereafter, however, I’m pretty comfortable with the speeds
throughout the performance.
The Gloria is joyful and buoyant. Some may think that ‘Gratias
agimus tibi’ is on the swift side but I like the freshness and
clarity. Of course, the same music recurs at the very end of
the work at ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and, rightly, Seymour adopts
the same tempo. For some reason I feel the tempo is marginally
less successful at that point in the score but I’d far rather
have a speed that’s fleet than any suggestion of grandiosity.
Reverting to the Gloria, the ‘Qui tollis’ also benefits from
the clarity of approach. Perhaps a slightly slower speed would
have allowed the flute line to twine more sinuously around the
vocal parts but the performance is convincing. The lithe, jubilant
‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ is delightful; the fugue is excellent,
the singing - and playing – crisp and each line clearly audible.
In the Credo I like the way Seymour takes the ‘Et incarnatus’
and ‘Crucifixus’ choruses: the pacing is sensible and his singers
have just the right amount of tonal weight without any hint
of the sanctimonious. At the end of the Credo the ‘Et expecto’
is exciting and festive, complete with silvery trumpets. The
Sanctus is quite fleet and some may feel that some grandeur
has been sacrificed. On the other hand, the pacing emphasises
the joyful nature of the words and music and I like it. In all
this Seymour is supported excellently by his choir. The chorus
is flexible and I like very much the fresh, clean tone they
produce with just the right amount of body in the bass line.
At all times the singing is clear and the choral contribution
is an asset in this performance.
What of the soloists? There’s a good, well matched duet from
Bethany Seymour and Sally Bruce-Payne in the ‘Christe eleison’
and, singing by herself, Bethany Seymour makes a very pleasing
impression in the highly decorated ‘Laudamus te’. I’m unsure
how the tenor solos are divided but whichever tenor sings in
the ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ duet has too big a voice for
the music in my view and overdoes the vibrato. He doesn’t blend
well with Miss Seymour. The soloist in the Benedictus sounds
much more suited to the music. He makes a good job of this demanding
solo and I like the plangency in his tone. There’s also a super
flute obbligato in this movement.
I’ve already mentioned Sally Bruce-Payne. She gives a very fine
account of ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’, singing her line
with clean tone and excellent articulation. And in the even
more crucial Agnus Dei solo her singing is excellent. The stand-out
soloist, however, is Peter Harvey. He’s commanding in ‘Quoniam
tu solus sanctus’ and in the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ he spins
a splendid line, deploying a splendid legato.
The recorded sound is good and the clearly produced booklet
includes a scholarly yet readable essay by Peter Seymour. This
performance of the B minor Mass is not, I think, a first choice
in what is a highly competitive field but it’s fresh and enjoyable
and I’m glad to have heard it.