JS BACH – Mass in B Minor BWV 232
Brent Stewart (conductor)
Anna Leese (soprano)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano)
Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto)
Benjamin Madden (tenor)
Simon Christie (bass)
David Morriss (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)
Michael Fowler Centre
Saturday 29th April 2023
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor is one of those works that has taken on a life of its own largely independent of the intentions of its composer. The work was composed in separate sections at different times, the two opening sequences (Kyrie and Gloria) appearing as early as 1733, so that the composer could at that time demonstrate his credentials for a job as Court Composer in Dresden – unfortunately, it was a position he failed to secure. Fifteen years later he returned to these sequences and completed the work with the Credo, Sanctus, and the remaining movements – Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem. No-one knows exactly what his intentions were, and there’s no evidence that the whole work was ever performed in Bach’s lifetime.
Musicologists however tend to the view that Bach wanted to set down a kind of compendium of his skills as a composer, an overview of his life’s work. Adding credence to this view is the extent to which the composer employs practically every church music style ranging from austere counterpoint to dance and operatic styles which he’d used in previous works, the result a compilation of matchless variety. However, probably because of Bach’s localised and therefore limited reputation during his lifetime, the work did not find favour in general terms until some way through the 19th century – the music wasn’t printed until 1845, and the first documented performance didn’t occur until 1859.
Of course the actual performance sound-world of Bach’s music in itself has undergone radically change in relatively recent times, spearheaded by a desire of musicians to attempt to reconstruct something akin to what the composer himself might have heard in his own performances of his music. Consequently, at the present time no two scholars’, conductors’ or musicians’ interpretations of practically any baroque work will sound alike as current ideas concerning just what earlier eras DID hear can markedly differ. Available recordings today offer a fascinating range of practices, from the still-conventionally-sized choral groups and orchestral ensembles to certain new-age minimalist one-to-a-part performances that stress clarity ahead of sheer visceral vocal impact as a prime concern.
The programme accompanying the Orpheus Choir’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance here in Wellington at the MFC contained a note (uncredited, but almost certainly from conductor Brent Stewart) on certain performance practices followed in the music on this occasion. Probably the most radical in terms of frequency this evening was to reallocate certain sections of the chorus’s music to the soloists as well as enabling those soloists to join in with the sections of the choir that correspond with their particular voices. This very probably accords with Bach’s own practice of using small ensembles of 12-16 voices, and sometimes only solo voices, in certain of his cantatas. In such instances the reduced number of voices can highlight changes of mood and/or atmosphere in the pieces, and underline the clarity of the polyphonic lines.
The ensuing variety of vocal colours, textures and tones from the soloists in their freshly-allocated concerted roles certainly made for interesting results, even in the somewhat ungiving Michael Fowler Centre acoustic (which has never to my ears particularly favoured solo voice lines when compared with those heard in the warmer and more generous ambiences of the Town Hall). Generally the trio of female solo voices coped better, I thought, with the prevailing MFC conditions than did the males, though each of the latter had their moments in either their solo or duet numbers.
Tenor Benjamin Madden most ably partnered soprano Anna Leese in the enchantingly “give-and-take” lines of the “Domine Deus” duet from the Gloria, though I thought he found the high tessitura of his later solo “Benedictus” aria somewhat effortful in places. Bass David Morriss negotiated his runs in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with growing certainty as the voice and Logan Bryck’s solo horn-playing gradually asserted a shared confidence. And fellow-bass Simon Christie made, I opinioned, a generally good fist (if just ahead of the beat, I thought, in places) of his demanding traversal of the difficult “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” from the “Credo”. As previously indicated, I did tend towards hearing the women’s solo voices more easily in these various choral “cribbings” throughout.
Of the women’s voices it was as much a case of “vive la difference” as of varying amplitude of tones between them. In one or two instances I found myself lost in admiration for how well the singer was coping with the various melismatic demands as much as for the sheer vocal quality, a particular example being Jenny Wollerman’s stirring duet performance with violinist Martin Riseley of the beautiful “Laudamus te”, even at a tempo that set the pulses racing faster than I had been used to hearing, and having an exhilaration all of its own!
Maaike Christie-Beekman gave particular pleasure with her alto voice throughout, specifically in both her partnering of Alison Dunlop’s gorgeously-played oboe d’amore in “Qui sedes a dextram Patris”, and even more feelingly in the “Agnus Dei”, her finely-chiselled tones beautifully augmented by the strings throughout. And the somewhat dry acoustic seemed to hold no terrors for soprano Anna Leese, whose tones set even the MFC precincts dancing in places, such as in each of the two sensuous duets within the work’s Part One, the “Christe eleison”, with an equally responsive Jenny Wollerman, and my out-and-out favourite duet, the “Domine Deus” from the Gloria, in which her deliciously insouciant, sinuous lines were matched by Karen Batten’s radiant flute-playing and Benjamin Hodder’s reliably responsive vocal partnering. Yet another duet, “Et in Unum Dominum” , featured Leese’s and Christie-Beekman’s voices spectacularly playing off against one another’s, their teamwork exemplary.
The Orpheus Choir’s numbers perhaps didn’t on this occasion accord size-wise with the resources Bach himself used, but one would have had to possess a heart of stone to remain unmoved by certain moments in the work whose resounding impact couldn’t have been achieved with fewer voices – the very opening Kyrie, for instance, and in the Gloria, the climaxes of “Gratias agimus tibi” with its steady, scalp-pricking accumulation of vocal tone at the end, and similarly with the celestial jubilations at the beginning and the conclusion of “Cum Sancto Spiritu” , an effect also replicated by those cascading vocal triplets throughout the “Sanctus”, drenching us in all-enveloping tonal torrents!
Not that our enjoyment of the choir’s efforts was confined merely to the “spectacular moments” – Bach’s aforementioned penchant for exploring a plethora of musical styles brought to us such varied vocal expression as that characterising the deeply-concentrated and awe-struck “Et incarnatus est” , followed by a subtle change of mood and tone to one of sorrow and grief for the ‘’Crucifixus”, with the ensuing “Et Resurrexit” giving, of course, the voices the chance to demonstrate their versatility with the change from desolate feeling to unbridled joy. And what better way to conclude the whole work than with the majesty of the “Dona Nobis Pacem”, Brent Stewart’s visionary direction of his forces inspiring the Orpheus’s utmost commitment towards and (as throughout the work) admirable technical finish in this valedictory expression of the composer’s faith and confidence in his Maker.
Up there with the chorus’ sterling efforts deserving of the highest praise were those of the Orchestra Wellington players, who in both solo and ensemble terms had under conductor Stewart’s direction a burnished brilliance which fitted Bach’s music like a glove. The numerous instrumental solos were delivered in full accordance with the music’s character in each case, ranging from the elan of Martin Riseley’s violin solo in “Laudamus te”, piquant elegance in the case of Karen Batten’s flute solos in both “Domine Deus”, and “Benedictus (the latter supported additionally by Brenton Veitch’s ‘cello), and heroic energies from Logan Bryck‘s horn in “Quoniam”, to Alison Dunlop’s heartfelt oboe d’amore solo in “Agnus Dei”, and her mellifluous partnership with fellow-oboist Alison Jepson and bassoonist Jessica Goldbaum in “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”. But as with the voices, the corporate energies of the players formed the bedrock on which this performance proved such a great success, to which Jonathan Berkahn’s harpsichord continuo provided unfailing sustenance. Whether it was a hushed ambience, a playful energy or a monumental magnificence required, the players in so many instances spectacularly delivered, the strings endlessly providing lyrical and rhythmic support, the winds beautifully colouring the different textures, and the brass and timpani frequently capping off the big moments with plenty of requisite tonal splendour and impact.
Having touched upon many of the exemplary features of the performance from those concerned, it seems appropriate to underline the fact of the event’s circumstances having had various teething problems – included was a kind of “historical” aspect to the undertaking, relating to postponements of the event due to COVID restrictions going back as far as 2020, recurring in both 2021 and 2022, and then finally easing sufficiently to allow this 2023 performance! To add to these difficulties came a clutch of more recent glitches involving indisposition of scheduled singers and players, resulting in belated replacements for the original bass singer and horn-player (and very nearly for one of the female soloists as well! In recounting these mishaps, director Brent Stewart did, he told me, wonder whether some “higher power” really didn’t want this performance to go ahead, almost right up to the scheduled starting time on the day, when what he termed “apocalyptic traffic” added to the stress and strain (and caused a ten-minute delay to the concert’s actual “kickoff”!)
When thinking back to the performance, with its memory continuing to churn and resound in my head, what remains for me is a sense of the music being propelled by its many committed performers with boundless energies and in beguiling varieties of ways. All of these qualities arguably lead the work’s listeners to realms which encourage singular manifestations of purpose in human existence, as many as there are different people. All of it left me with a profuse gratitude to Brent Stewart and his forces at so readily bringing their abundant skills to bear on this enthralling music.