ANAM: Bach B minor Mass

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Published: 25th June, 2019

The near capacity audience was enthusiastic in its response to the Australian National Academy of Music’s performance of the complete version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s great Mass in B minor at the Melbourne Recital Centre, calling back conductor Benjamin Bayl and the ten singers (British octet VOCES8 and guests Susannah Lawergren and Amy Moore) several times and cheering the contribution of ANAM’s outstanding young instrumentalists.

Revered by Bach lovers and choral singers, his Mass was not conceived as a complete work by Bach at the outset, and it is possible that he never heard a complete performance of the work, which at a bit under two hours of music is too long for liturgical performance. Bach’s own Lutheran church used the Kyrie and Gloria in their liturgy, and although substantial, these two movements were performed in the context of an Ascension Day Vespers at the Lutheran St John’s Southgate only a couple of weeks ago. Bach submitted these two movements, which drew heavily on many of his own works, reworked to accommodate the text, to the Catholic Saxony Court in Dresden in 1733, asking to be considered for the position of Court Composer. Much later in his life, Bach completed the remaining parts of the Ordinary of the Mass – Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei – perhaps to stand alongside his Passions as landmark works. For these he also heavily plagiarised his own work, with just one completely new musical section.

Over the past forty years, much academic debate has surrounded the question of Bach’s intended forces for his works with instruments and voices. Adopted as ‘choral’ works, we hear them now most often with a Baroque Orchestra and a choir of several voices per part whereas a century ago it would have been more often large choral societies and full orchestras. Joshua Rifkin released a recording in 1982 attempting to be as close as possible to Bach’s original intentions. This would seem to have been generally one instrumentalist per written part, including the strings, and most often one singer per part, “concertists”, who would also sing the solos. Occasionally for specific sections there might also be “ripienists”, who joined for larger effect. As Bach was not specific in his scores, the historical evidence is generated from records of the forces available at the various times and places of performance. Andrew Parrott has also written extensively with similar views, while Ton Koopman has railed against this very small-scale performance practice.

ANAM’s approach was to have their string list divided so that the players changed at interval, allowing for a more intimate group, still significantly outnumbering the singers.

Before the interval we heard what Bach called the Missa – the Kyrie and Gloria – divided into 12 “movements”. With conductor Benjamin Bayl standing with his score on the chamber organ in front of him, the singers and orchestra opened with the four bar Kyrie introduction. The singers seemed to disappear amongst the instruments. After the heavily articulated orchestral Largo, the voices emerged in the first of many fugues, and with ten singers, there was the opportunity in this five-part vocal section for some doubling. The lower voices often did not cut through once the texture thickened, and this was an issue throughout the first half of the concert. To my ears, the orchestral sound was a little bass-heavy in the first half, and the singers were what Richard Gill used to describe as “vegetarian” – lacking a bit of substance. In the Kyrie, the singers, particularly tenors and basses also had that slightly soupy English Cathedral style of attack and phrasing too, in which the sound takes a while to emerge and establish a firm tone. The exception was the wonderful first soprano Andrea Haines, whose bell-like top notes possessed a resonance of great beauty.

The Gloria, with its joyful brass opening, led to a more immediately present sound from the singers, although still the balance between the forces was not clearly in the singers’ favour. Bach’s vocal lines are written like instrumental lines, and perhaps we should be listening to them as part of the overall texture, and not expecting the voices to be “accompanied” by the instruments. The trumpet playing throughout was a joy to hear.

The solo arias were satisfying, with some excellent playing of the instrumental solo obbligato lines adding to the enjoyment. These exposed solos are technically demanding for all parties, and to hear them delivered musically is a treat! In the Gloria we heard a virtuoso violin solo with soprano in the Laudamus te, soprano and tenor Domine Deus duet with flutes (not the baroque flute I’m used to hearing, but stylistically managed superbly on modern instruments), the countertenor’s Qui sedes with a long and beautiful oboe solo, and the bass soloist’s Quoniam tu solus sanctus with spectacular horn soloist and bassoons. The singers gave more of their projection and edge to their voices in the solos, and I found myself wishing that they would bring that same vocal energy to the ensemble singing too, rather than shrinking back into a more blended sound.

The culmination of the Gloria, Cum Sancto Spiritu, is marked vivace, and it was indeed very lively! In fact, it was so fast that the semiquavers sometimes occurring in multiple instrumental and vocal lines became rather unstable. It never quite went off the rails however, and ended triumphantly with conductor throwing the anchor out a few bars from the end, providing a very satisfying conclusion to the first part of the concert.

After interval, string and keyboard players were swapped over, presumably to give more players the opportunity to participate, and it was a good reminder that the opportunity to perform in a large-scale Bach work is a very worthwhile exercise for a young musician in a professional performance training situation.

Bach entitled Part II of the work Symbolum Nicenum. Beginning with the Credo in nine separate movements, matching the text, Bach turns the solo tenor announcement of the traditional mixolydian Gregorian chant into the subject of a seven-voice fugue, with five vocal parts and two violin voices, over a stepwise moving bass line. The confident opening tenor solo line heralded what felt like a much more confident vocal ensemble. In this second part, the singers were not lost in the more richly orchestrated sections. Again, Bach draws on his own Cantatas, sacred and secular for much of the musical material.

The beautifully mysterious Et incarnatus est with its gently descending broken chords and the Crucifixus with its chromaticism and ground bass were highlights for me, and demonstrated the sensitivity of the musicians and the wonderful acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The softest pianissimo immediately preceded the rousing Et resurrexit, which, while energetic, also had a tendency to become a little unsteady rhythmically.

In this section, we also heard the beautiful soprano and countertenor duet, Et in unum Dominum with superb oboe duet accompaniment, and Et in unum spiritum sanctum, a baritone solo, sung with great lyricism, in partnership with an outstanding oboe d’amore duet.

Confiteor unum baptisma demonstrated a lovely lightness of touch from the continuo instruments while the singers effectively delivered another five-part fugue, and after a spirited et vitam venturi saeculi, the movement came to a sudden finish with the shortest “amen”.

Sanctus produced some of the most successful ensemble singing of the evening, with the orchestra also contributing to the splendour of this majestic movement.

Osanna is written for two choirs and the orchestra as another “choir”, so the singers moved either side of the conductor to take up their places as two separate SATB choirs. With ten singers, this enabled a soprano or alto voice to be doubled where necessary, though the tenors and basses were one to a part. The clarity and balance worked well here, and it was a very convincing performance. A tenor solo Benedictus, with stylish flute and superb cello followed, then the repeat of Osanna, before the alto solo Agnus Dei, and finally Dona nobis pacem, repeating the music of Gratias agimus tibi from the Gloria. Bach sets texts very thoughtfully, here linking the concept of thanks with the notion of peace through sharing the musical material. Bach treats voices as instruments, and it is a challenge for the singer to phrase the music, make sense of the text, and manage to breathe.

Benjamin Bayl and the emerging ANAM musicians, together with the beautiful voices of VOCES8 and guests, delivered a satisfying version of this large Bach work. While there was a tendency to push the tempo in some of the exciting orchestral sections, resulting in a few untidy moments where semiquavers in multiple voices just didn’t line up, most of the orchestral work was wonderful. Although not using instruments of the period, attention to Baroque style was strong. The vocal ensemble grew in confidence and projection, and after a tentative beginning, emerged to hold their own. And the audience loved it!

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Margaret Arnold reviewed the performance by ANAM and VOCES8 of Bach’s B Minor Mass given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 21, 2019.