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Bach, Mass in B Minor: Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki (Conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 22.3.2011 (SSM)

Hana Blažíková, Soprano
Rachel Nicholls, Soprano
Clint van der Linde, Countertenor
Gerd Türk, Tenor
Peter Kooij, Bass

This performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor, as well as the previous evening's concert by the NHK Orchestra of Japan, is part of the JapanNYC festival. A more appropriate program could not be found to commemorate the disaster in Japan, and Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's artistic director, requested a moment of silence before the concert started.

The historic debate as to what is the correct size for the mass's orchestra and chorus is as complicated as it is for Handel's Messiah. Indeed, the mass is like the Messiah in reflecting the sensibilities of the time. A large chorus had always been used, but by the late nineteenth century, performances with 200 or more vocalists were considered not big enough. The first complete performance in New York City in 1900 by the Oratorio Society of New York, consisting of 72 instrumentalists and a chorus of 500, was praised by The New York Times for being "in accordance with the tonal balance usual in Bach's day." In a very early nod to historical authenticity, Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the 1900 concert, had 2 oboe d'amores made in Germany for the performance, instruments unlikely to have been heard with a chorus of this size overpowering their fragile voices.

As early as 1911 Albert Schweitzer complained that, "Even with a choir of 150 voices, there is a danger of the lines of the vocal polyphony coming out too thickly and heavily in a way directly opposed to the nature of Bach's music." Today no one will claim that a chorus of more than 50 or a large imbalance of vocal and instrumental resources would be true to the spirit of Bach's music. A similar debate continues over the issue of OVPP (one voice per part), an idea proposed and defended by Joshua Rifkin in the early 1980's.

Masaaki Suzuki's performance was somewhere in the middle ground of this controversy with an orchestra of about 25 instrumentalists and a chorus of 4 or 5 for each vocal line (Sopranos I and II, Altos, Tenors and Bass). Except for the bass and countertenor, the soloists returned in a graceful, rehearsed manner to their respective places in the chorus. Suzuki was so sensitive to the issue of balance that for "Et in Terra Pax" he moved the entire chorus from a left to right grouping of Soprano I, Alto, Bass, Tenor and Soprano II to a simpler grouping of highest to lowest vocal range. The chorus returned to their original configuration afterwards. The end result was a well-balanced performance with neither voices nor instruments overpowering each other.

Maestro Suzuki has nearly completed recording all of Bach's sacred cantatas (he is currently at volume 47) as well as all of his keyboard music, and he, the orchestra and the chorus are clearly well-experienced in Bach's choral style. A master harpsichordist, Suzuki carries over his knowledge of keyboard practice to Bach's orchestral and vocal music so that there is clarity to each polyphonic strand in the score, as would be required in a keyboard work.

There is no doubt that the B-Minor Mass is a monumental piece of  music, from its tragic opening "Kyrie" to its high point in the  "Sanctus" (the vocal equivalent of vaulting a cathedral) to the ending  "Dona nobis pacem," a paradigm of the entire work from its  simple opening chorus to its massive full-blown finale. Yet ultimately,  compared to Bach's 200 or so extant, tight and personal  cantatas, the mass seems overblown. This is partially  due to its derivative nature: half or more of the sections are  recycled from earlier material. Composed in a manner that,  even with modifications, restricted Bach from the total freedom he  had in creating a work such as the St. Matthew Passion, the mass lacks the Passion's solid structure and continuity. While not  as derivative as the Christmas Oratorio, the mass  does retain a feeling of being ever so slightly second-hand.

As for this performance, none of the soloists had particularly strong voices: all shared a common dynamic projection more suited for performances in smaller halls. My main complaint was with the bass Peter Kooij, whose voice was weak and raw in his first aria, "Quoniam tu solus Sanctus." He improved somewhat (as did the performance as a whole) in the second half of the concert when he sang the aria, "Et in Spiritum Sanctum." Mr. Kooij has been an exemplary bass soloist in all but a handful of the Collegium Japan's recordings of the Bach cantata cycle, so his singing here was particularly disappointing.

The orchestra produced rich and multicolored sounds, even with the expected slight intonation errors of the tremendously difficult valveless horns and trumpets. The timpanist, Robert Howes, is to be particularly commended for his precise playing of his instrument. Ryo Terakado, the concertmaster, sensitively accompanied the soprano Rachel Nicholls in the aria "Laudamus Dei." The orchestra and chorus had only one real synchronization problem which threw them off for several minutes. This occurred right after the intermission at the beginning of the "Credo" when Maestro Suzuki began conducting before the musicians and chorus were ready. Tempos were also moderate.

I imagine how difficult it must be for the performers to find the inner strength necessary to perform music of such intensity and pathos given the tragedy that is being faced by their families and friends back in Japan. Congratulations to all the musicians for persevering through this difficult time to produce glorious music that consoles us all.

Stan Metzger

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