Helios – Mass in B minor

Mass in B minor, BWV232

Samantha Binnie (soprano)
Lindsay Richardson (contralto)
Alex Pidgen (tenor)
Ørjan Hartveit (bass)


Belsize Baroque
Mark Sproson

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 June, 2007
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London

Belsize Baroque, a ‘period’ instrument band of “committed amateurs, young professionals and students”, here joined Helios, a versatile and flexible choral group. This performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor was the culmination of Helios’s project “Bach in context”.

In 1748 (two years before his death) Bach compiled the Mass in B minor from earlier compositions; quite why is not certain and there is no record of a performance taking place in the composer’s lifetime. However, as a summation of his achievements, alongside The Art of the Fugue and The Musical Offering, Mass in B minor stands as a monument of Bach’s genius. Unfortunately, in this performance, a mixed affair, some compromise to its ‘masterpiece’ status was endured.

Following some protracted tuning of the orchestra, the first really noticeable aspect of the opening ‘Kyrie eleison’ was tuning deficiencies between winds and strings! Another was the ponderous tempo set by Mark Sproson. Indeed the opening numbers plodded, the performers sounded tentative and the effect was earthbound. These were the tempos more associated with conductors such as Giulini, Eugen Jochum and Celibidache (and their more monumental approaches); and at two hours or so for the complete work, Sproson’s overall timing was comparable with them. With small forces – the choir was 29-strong, the orchestra (including trumpets, drums and organ) 30 – and in a church acoustic notable for remarkably little reverberation, the music needed greater flow and dance-like vigour than it was sometimes given.

Some liveliness did surface later in the performance, to advantage, and some of Sproson’s spacious tempos did convince as the performers became more involved in this major undertaking, although there was not always sufficient gravitas to justify them.

There was much to admire, too. The three trumpets were splendidly secure and jubilant (although the timpani could have had more of a presence and more incision) and the organ was especially lovely-sounding and well balanced. Three of the soloists made expressive and well-phrased contributions. However Ørjan Hartveit was rather exposed in ‘Quoniam to solus sanctus’ (notable for a well-taken horn solo) through being a little adrift from the ensemble, while in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum’ he displayed a lack of definition in the lowest registers; tempos again seemed too careful in both sections.

In contrast the flutes brought a dulcet contribution and the orchestra’s leader, Barbara Barros, made a charismatic showing; she displayed swing in her solos, using a baroque bow with real mastery, and she led the orchestra more as a director: she was involved in every note. Steve Gordon’s theorbo also made an attractive contribution, and while one could question some tempos and tempo-relationships, there were some settings that certainly enjoyed zest, rapt attention and ceremonial uplift. Yet, conversely, impetus was lost with too-long pauses between movements, further bursts of tuning and a 25-minute interval (that became 30). The tuning was probably inescapable, though.

The final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ was especially telling in its universal plea for peace: very moving. The members of Helios sung with dedication, unanimity, fine blend and timbre and brought distinction to everything they did. If the whole didn’t quiet gel, there’s no doubting that this account ultimately left a positive impression.

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