“Johann Sebastian – Mighty Bach!” from Orpheus

J.S.BACH – Mass in B Minor

Madeleine Pierard, Lisette Wesseling (sopranos) / Christopher Warwick (counter-tenor) / Paul McMahon (tenor) / Daniel O’Connor (bass)

Orpheus Choir

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 22nd August, 2010

Because JS Bach’s Mass in B Minor is such an established part of the choral repertoire, it’s interesting to reflect on the somewhat piecemeal origins of the work – as an entity it was assembled by the composer in 1749, one year before his death, but parts of it were actually composed up to almost thirty years before, with some of these parts intended for other works – the Sanctus dates from 1724, and the Kyrie and Gloria come from 1733, used by the composer in one of his “Lutheran” Masses – though ironically the Latin settings suggest the Catholic liturgy as much as the Lutheran. Bach had composed this earlier Mass for the new Catholic Elector of Saxony, at whose court he had hoped to get an appointment as court composer (he got the job!). Opinions among scholars differ as to the likely dates of composition of the rest of the B Minor Mass – most are agreed that the work took its final shape throughout the 1740s, though the Credo setting continues to divide opinion regarding its origin in time and place.

What has all of this got to do with the performance we heard on Sunday of the Mass given by the Orpheus Choir and the Vector Wellington Orchestra, with an excellent team of soloists, all directed by Michael Fulcher? Well, it’s just that, despite this somewhat checquered compositional assemblage, the mighty work continued to amaze and inspire and profoundly satisfy on practically all counts. The performance was a splendid achievement, taking into account the usual “settling-in” period from both choir and orchestra, and a few glitches of the kind readily associated with live performance – once things started coming together there were places when a burnished glow came over both singing and playing. I thought the choir particularly good at maintaining those long-breathed sonorous melodic lines in the grander, more declamatory music – so the openings of each section of the work sounded particularly resplendent, with the women’s voices particularly strong and focused, and the men’s invariably characterful and accurate, though not as full-sounding. The orchestral soloists were, without exception a joy to hear; and once the rest of the players got into their conductor’s vigorous stride (the opening of the Gloria was a particularly breathless affair, especially for the brass), they were able to articulate the music with precise attack and homogenous tones.

What the work really does is present the listener (and performers) with a kind of compendium of Bach’s compositional styles and techniques, an assemblage that, thanks to the sheer composer-craft of technique and imagination of invention, sounds as though its constituent parts flow from one to another as if conceived in the same melting-pot at the same time. Neither its composer nor the performers or audiences of the time thought there was anything unusual about it or about how it was put together – baroque composers were so much less “purist” about their own music than we are about it, and Bach was no exception, if the genesis of this Mass is anything to go by. While the work doesn’t in my view achieve the variety of invention and profundity of feeling that do the two major Passions, St.John and St.Matthew, it still tests the technical skill and interpretative depth of any musician involved with its performance.

A lot of focus was centred on soprano Madeleine Pierard, whose activities overseas, particularly in the operatic field, give an impression of a career developing steadily and rewardingly. She made a delightful impression on a previous return visit to Wellington in 2008 to sing in “Messiah”, and was just as vocally attractive and interpretatively insightful on this occasion. The singer gave Bach’s lines a wonderful mixture of strength, purity and emotion that really made the music come alive, the technical accomplishment she’s already achieved allowing her to concentrate on the text and the line and their interaction to make an expressive effect.The difference this time round, apart from that of the music, was in the quality of her soloist colleagues in this concert, enabling her as a matter of course to engage with them in equal partnerships, true give-and-take affairs that brought out the best in the participants.

As second soprano, Lisette Wesseling brought her own distinctive tones to both ensemble pieces and solos, making a fine job of the lovely “Laudamus te” from the “Gloria” (even at Michael Fulcher’s lively tempo, phrasing her lines with elegance and grace), and earlier blending characterfully with Madeleine Pierard in the “Christe eleison”. Australian tenor Paul McMahon contributed a similarly interactive role with Pierard in a gorgeously-sung “Domine Deus”, also from the “Gloria”. Here, and also with McMahon’s lovely singing of the “Benedictus” from the “Sanctus”, flutist Karen Batten won our hearts with some lovely, limpid playing, generating with the singers many subtle light-and-shade gradations of tone and phrasing.

I recently heard counter-tenor Christopher Warwick sing in the Wellington performance of the Monteverdi Vespers, and was impressed on that occasion by his ability to hold long lines of true tone with real quality – and it was that ability he brought to his singing of the “Agnus Dei”, as well as contributing, plangently and long-breathedly, to the duet with Madeleine Pierard from the Credo “Et in unum Dominum”. He was less comfortable with his first solo, “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”, one whose slightly awkward intervals gave him the occasional pitching problem – but his contribution to the general ensemble was most estimable.

Yet another soloist to give pleasure was the bass Daniel O’Connor, whose focused, agile singing was nicely set off by the horn obbligato in the Gloria’s “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”, and again by some lovely instrumental work in “Et in spiritum sanctum” from the “Credo”, this time with a pair of oboe d’amore adding their lines in thirds and carolling a memorable refrain. It was somewhat diverting to experience such deep, sonorous tones coming from so youthful-looking a figure, but nevertheless one who obviously has great potential as a performer, and who can already hold his own in more experienced company.

The performance took place in the Wellington Town Hall, which couldn’t be a better venue as regards sound. Bach would have written this music for performing in a church, but one suspects that he expected the focus to be well and truly on the music, considering the care he took and the intricacies that he created – he obviously meant these to be heard rather than delivered in a matter-of-fact way as a background to something else happening. In the Wellington Town Hall the acoustic was perfect for the work – a warm and rich sound that nevertheless allowed detail to come through. And there’s something about the venue – I think it’s partly the sound, but also the  “shoebox” shape of the auditorium – that encloses you and makes you feel as though you’re in the same performing space as the musicians, which gives the music-making a greater sense of intimacy. The Orpheus Choir’s performance was one that first and foremost sounded good, given that Bach’s part-writing is extremely demanding, and often written for voices as though he didn’t expect them to need to breathe – so the occasional loss of tone in the more torturous contrapuntal part-lines was something which a lot of performers experience when undertaking this work. And the Wellington Orchestra, after a bit of a scratchy start, gave the music a warm, richly-toned instrumental response throughout. Michael Fulcher kept everything together with great skill – he liked swifter speeds in places than I wanted, most notably in the “Laudamus te” which almost EVERYBODY I’ve heard, both in live performance and on record, goes too fast (Mathew Ross, his violin soloist for this performance, coped with the tumbling figurations most skilfully) – but his choir and his singers and players were almost invariably equal to the task, giving us a strong and direct realisation of this marvellous, somewhat quirky work of “Johann Sebastian – mighty Bach!”.

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