A SMALL-SCALE B MINOR MASS PROPELLED BY THE ENERGY OF ITS CHORUSES
J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor, Yulia Van Doren and Shannon Mercer (sopranos) Krisztina Szabó and Laura Pudwell (mezzo-sopranos), Charles Daniels and Philippe Gagné (tenors), Christian Immler and Sumner Thompson (bass), Les Voix Baroques, Arion Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Weimann, Chan Centre, August 5, 2016.
The B minor Mass served as one of the defining monuments of this year’s Vancouver Bach Festival, and featured Pacific Baroque’s Alexander Weimann conducting Montreal’s young Arion Baroque Orchestra and a fine variety of world class soloists. Utilizing 8 soloists and only 15 singers in total, the approach fit with the new breed of ‘authentic’ performances of this work: Marc Minkowski’s excellent 2007 recording with 10 soloists might be regarded as exemplary. There, the small scale was made to work through the lovely variety of vocal expression, achieving both intimacy and spirituality when combined with sharp instrumental contours. The current traversal started as a somewhat different voyage of discovery, with more modest vocal contributions and an accent on refinement, opening out only later to tighter choral contributions and greater projection. It was delightful to witness a performance set at this scale, and it seemed to gain its stride from the end of the Gloria, propelled by the inspired choruses. While the interpretation was light on the work’s more contemplative side, it eventually achieved the appropriate sense of occasion and dramatic power, and the later solo singing was particularly involving.
It was an interesting idea to emphasize the underlying lyrical flow of the Kyrie rather than its sheer grandeur. Phrases were strongly pushed out and arched at a measured pace, and it was rewarding to hear the individual timbres. Nonetheless, it did not seem that the singing was quite strong enough, or together enough, to maintain the full clarity of these lines, or achieve a feeling of inexorability. While the overall refinement of the 25-strong Arion orchestra is noteworthy, the orchestral execution also needed to be more decisive, with a stronger anchor in the bass. If this Kyrie ended up a little diffuse, then the four arias in the following Gloria also maintained a degree of vocal modesty. Chloe Myers’ fine violin accompanied Shannon Mercer in a clean and well-articulated, but perhaps slightly restrained, traversal of ‘Laudamus te’. The ‘Domine Deus’ with Yulia Van Doren and Philippe Gagné cultivated an attractively-piquant understatement from the opening but was less distinctive later on. Gagné did exude eagerness but sometimes tended to be hurried and not let his expression settle while Van Doren remained on the neutral side emotionally for all her consummate agility. Perhaps too did Krisztina Szabó in her ‘Qui sedes ad dextram Patris’, while noting the customary elegance in her phrasing. Bass Christian Immler has a very fine and flexible voice yet his ‘Quonium tu solus sanctus’ still did not have a fully-finished feel.
What did seem to inspire the group in the Gloria were the choruses. There was definitely something more vital and alert in ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, and the final two choruses had the strongest articulation and dramatic urgency. In fact, I have rarely witnessed as violent a change in dramatic profile in this work -- from cool, to almost super-charged, by the final chorus. The trumpets had plenty of work to do here, and while they were a little unsure early on, they gained confidence quickly. In the last chorus, they were possibly even too brazen and splendorous for my taste.
This notching-up was maintained in the Credo: tighter discipline and greater dramatic purpose would now reign. The orchestra was sharper and more decisive and the opening chorus had a compelling sense of architecture and musical space. The suspension of the vocal lines was noteworthy. The two arias exhibited much more character and control and I was particularly impressed with Sumner Thompson’s sense of line in ‘Et in spiritum Sanctum Dominum’. The two closing choruses were light, quick and flexible, having a bustling energy. The only casualties from this more direct approach were the important ‘Et incarnates est de Spiritu Sancto’ and ‘Crucifixus’ which, while beautifully sung, could hardly establish their quiet distilled space and dramatic frisson at the quicker tempos.
The Sanctus moved forward with perhaps even greater shape and power in the singing. The two renderings of ‘Osanna in excelsius’ were excellent and Charles Daniels, accompanied by the most sensitive flute playing of Claire Guimond, brought his characteristic depth and gravity to ‘Benedictus’. Laura Pudwell’s ‘Agnus Dei’ was felt and beautifully shaped and set over an admirable orchestral intensity. The ‘Dona nobis pacem’ closed the work with all the feeling and frisson one could want.
For all the restraint of its opening, this ended as a quite scintillating performance, certainly sufficient to convince everyone that authentic performances of this work can be involving and powerful. While not to underplay what was accomplished, I admit that I didn’t particularly like the feeling that the work is split into two distinct halves of quite different emotional temperature. In principle, there must be an underlying spiritual core that develops consistently from the strength of the opening Kyrie, and unites the work throughout. This interpretation responded better to the more demonstrative/ public dimensions later in the score than to the development of its guiding spiritual resonance. In a small-scale interpretation of this type, it seems that there must be even more scope for finding the latter: through developing greater intensity and suspension in the softer, more contemplative parts of the work, and a greater sense of intimacy in the singing overall.
© Geoffrey Newman 2016