Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor BWV 232 (1749) [103:06]
Bethany Seymour (soprano); Sally Bruce-Payne (soprano/alto); Jason Darnell (tenor); Joshua Ellicott (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
Yorkshire Bach Choir; Yorkshire Baroque Soloists/Peter Seymour
rec. 16-18 April 2010, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York. DDD
Latin texts and English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD265 [49:42 + 53:24]
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.
John Quinn
Not a first choice in what is a highly competitive field but a fresh and enjoyable account of the B minor Mass.