Bach’s B minor Mass

Bach
Mass in B minor

Malin Hartelius (soprano)
Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano)
Lothar Odinius (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 22 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Mass in B minor is one of those works which Bach composed towards the end of his life – The Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering are two others – which seems to sum-up his achievements as a composer. ‘Masterpiece’ is an oft-used – and sometimes misapplied – word, but is nevertheless applicable in this case. Actually, ‘composed’ is probably not quite the right term, since Bach compiled the Mass from various cantatas and other sources, quite possibly for the mundane purpose of obtaining an honorary title at the court of the elector of Saxony in Dresden.

But whatever its origins and intended objective, few would dispute the fact that it remains one of the very summits of musical achievement in the Baroque – or, for that matter, any – era. It does not seem that the Mass was performed complete during the composer’s lifetime or if he intended it to be given in whole or in part, or what, exactly, the performing forces or venue would have been. They would not have been a mixed-voice choir in a concert hall with a dry acoustic. That much we can be sure of. But having elected to give the work in this fashion, a performing ‘style’ needs to be decided upon and some consistency of approach adopted.

The chief drawback of this performance was this very lack of consistency. András Schiff did not seem to know quite what sort of performance he was aiming at. There were passages (such as the “Gratias agimus Tibi”, musically repeated as the concluding “Dona nobis pacem”) which had an almost neo-Romantic sheen, offset against which was quasi-Baroque phrasing, with terribly mannered clipped articulation breaking up words and syllables, which occurred in several of the fugal passages, and was a feature of the opening “Kyrie”.

On the whole, tempos were reasonably well-judged and, in more vigorous passages such as those that conclude the “Gloria” and “Credo”, the music’s momentum created moments of considerable exhilaration. But in the “Laudamus te”, the speed was so fast that the solo violin could not manage all the rapid notes, and the otherwise admirable Monica Groop was left all-but snatching for breath and unable to negotiate ornaments comfortably. The soloists were largely an operatic ensemble. Malin Hartelius was bright of tone, although an intrusive vibrato ultimately prevented complete clarity of line. Lothar Odinius’s basically attractive tone was heard at its best in the “Domine Deus” duet, where the interaction between tenor and soprano was admirable. In the solo “Benedictus”, Odinius struggled to negotiate some of the more awkward intervallic writing and the top of the voice sounded rather strained. The bass’s two solos seem to suggest that two voices are needed – and sometimes, especially on record, two are indeed deployed. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was audibly more at ease in the lower range, which made the higher-lying “Et in Spiritum sanctam” something of a trial.

The most consistently successful was Monica Groop, who impressed with her sense of line and, in the “Agnus Dei”, her gravity and beauty of utterance. This latter movement was, unfortunately, marred once again by fussy, prissy phrasing from the violins. The Philharmonia Orchestra, with much reduced string strength, played with superb discipline and poise. The flute and oboe playing was exemplary, their various obbligatos contributing to no small degree to the effectiveness of the movements where they predominate, even if, in the case of the flute in “Domine Deus”, Kenneth Smith was encouraged to exaggerate the phrasing to such an extent that the notated rhythm was in danger of being distorted. The trio of trumpets was outstanding, and their presence invariably lent a blaze of colour and excitement, and one noted how economically, yet unerringly effectively, Bach used this instrument.

This concert featured the first appearance of Philharmonia Voices, a new group under the direction of Aidan Oliver, who would appear to have the right background (Westminster Cathedral, Eton, King’s College, Cambridge) and connections to ensure a successful career in choral conducting. Described as including “many of the finest young singers in the country, many of them either at the start of their professional careers or completing their conservatoire studies,” they had certainly been moulded into a cohesive whole. Inevitably, they were young and fresh-sounding, though this meant a lack of weight from the basses in particular, and sopranos were not completely devoid of flatness. The tenors launched the “Credo” with a rather thin tone, but the whole choir’s agility in the contrapuntal sections, with entries secure, and a full, focussed tone, was undeniably impressive.

In a note in the programme, András Schiff reflected on his admiration for Otto Klemperer’s work – as well he might. But some of Klemperer’s qualities that Schiff professes to admire, such as the “sense of rhythm, and grasp of form and structure” were those very features which were absent from this performance. There were several moments when, at the start of a movement, overall ensemble was somewhat shaky and uncertain. Fatally, a strong pulse was not maintained and, whatever the tempo, there was a curious tendency for the music to plod, rather than having a sense of inexorable momentum.

So, given the pedigree of the performers at his disposal, András Schiff led a performance of this monumental work which was, ultimately, less than the potential sum of its parts.

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