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Bach, Mass in B Minor:  Joanne Lunn, Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Robin Blaze (countertenor), Toby Spence (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 16.4.2010 (GPu)

Mass in B minor

Without the obvious ‘human’ dimension of the Passions, minus narrative and characterisation (one can hardly imagine a Deborah Warner staging of it), the B Minor Mass has a kind of absolute quality to it. As a teenager I remember being very puzzled by Walter Emery’s comments (in the Penguin, Choral Music of 1963) that “it seems reasonable to regard the Mass as ‘paper-music’, comparable not with the Passions but with such collections as Bach’s Little Organ Book (Orgelbüchlein) and the first three parts of the Clavier Exercise (Clavierübung) – whose schemes were dictated by logic or convenience, not by musical necessities. We do not spend two hours listening to the six Clavier Partitas, played in numerical order, just because Bach published them together. Perhaps it is equally foolish to listen to complete performances of the mass; and certainly such performances are hardly ever successful”. I didn’t, then, entirely have the confidence to believe the evidence of my own ears and realise that not only could one listen to the B Minor mass right through, but one should do so – because it is a remarkable musical construction, a sublime piece of music architecture fascinating both in its monumentality of structure and its wealth of detail, a kind of musical (and theological) summation, a fitting conclusion to Bach’s work as a sacred composer. Hopefully such a description doesn’t risk making the work sound in any way dry or merely academic; while it may not be theatrical or quasi-operatic, the B Minor mass is full of musical and intellectual drama. Certainly this performance directed by Thierry Fischer was intensely dramatic, full of fierce contrasts of tempo and texture, richly expressive and emotionally intense, though without any sense of self indulgence.

Bach’s assemblage of so much music from works written earlier is an act of recuperation which serves to demonstrate the underlying unity of his life work and to make possible a religious testament which speaks of lessons learned through a long and productive life. (The incorporation of elements from Church music of earlier centuries – such as the use of the plainsong credo from the Liber Usualis in the Confiteor, or the quasi-Renaissance polyphony of the second Kyrie – grounds the work in a history longer than that of the composer himself).

The Mass was performed in Joshua Rifkin’s 2008 edition, with its greater emphasis on the evidence of Bach’s holograph manuscript of the late 1740s and less use made of those later copies which incorporated revisions by C.P.E. Bach. It was performed on modern instruments and with a choir of some sixty voices, but in a manner – including some very rapid tempos in places – which would have been unimaginable a couple of generations ago. It benefited from a fine team of soloists and a chorus who were on an outstanding form, as well as from the accomplished work of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The BBC National Chorus of Wales stood up superbly to the enormous demands of the work, retaining an admirable freshness of tone throughout and a consistent alertness to rhythm. The women’s voices were particularly fine, strikingly so in, for example, the opening statement of the Gloria and the Et in terra which immediately succeeds it. The choral work in a rapid Cum Sancto Spiritu was memorable in its agility and controlled momentum, that in the Crucifixus poised and meditative as well as pained. All the solo contributions made by the orchestra were of a high standard, and I intend no slighting of those left unnamed if I single out the work of violinist Lesley Hadfield in the Laudamus Te (in which her dialogue with the soprano of Elin Manahan Thomas was beautifully intimate), of horn player Tim Thorpe in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus and of the flautists Anna Wholstenholme and Claire Fillhart in several items. Joanne Lunn sang with both authority and delicacy throughout (working particularly well as a duettist with Toby Spence in Domine Deus) and fellow soprano Elin Manahan Thomas brought some beautifully liquid phrasing to Laudamus Te. Robin Blaze’s richly expressive singing was noticeable for the particular intelligence and sensitivity which he brought to the interpretation of text (not least in Qui Sedes) and Toby Spence offered the same virtue, along with a tonal variety which always attracted attention to words and music rather than itself. Bass Peter Harvey sang with both a commanding presence and an affecting gentleness as occasion demanded.

The whole made for a memorable and moving evening, in which praise of the performers (though it was deserved all round) was made to seem a much less important consideration than one’s experience of the profound beauty and power of the work performed (and, of course, that one could feel and say that is itself a particularly important kind of praise to extend to conductor, orchestra, choir and soloists alike). Earlier in the week I happened to read lines by Robert Browning in ‘Parleyings with Certain People of importance in Their Day’. They came very appropriately to mind at the end of this concert: There is no truer Truth obtainable, By Man than comes of music.

Glyn Pursglove


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