Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music – Opening Concert: Bach Mass in B minor/Herreweghe

Mass in B minor, BWV232

Dorothee Mields & Hana Blazikova (sopranos), Damien Guillon (countertenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor) & Peter Kooij (bass)
Collegium Vocale Gent
Philippe Herreweghe

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 13 May, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

To judge by the capacity crowd and buzzing atmosphere at St John’s, this opening-night concert of the 2011 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music was a hot ticket. The reason was clear: a visit by Philippe Herreweghe with his world-renowned Collegium Vocale Gent to perform Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor – “The greatest musical work of art of all times and nations”, according to its first publisher in 1818, words which the Festival’s Artistic Director Lindsay Kemp irrefutably suggests are still hard to disagree with today, despite the intervening 200 years of musical history.

Philippe Herreweghe. Photograph: Michel GarnierHerreweghe’s view of the work is more intimate than many conductors, graceful, buoyant and never overstated. From him the opening tutti cry of ‘Kyrie elision’ is ingratiating rather than austere, the movement proceeding with a mobile tempo that felt supremely fluid; humility mixed with calm assurance. The ensuing ‘Christe eleison’ gently caressed the senses with calm reflection and radiant inner warmth, the two soprano soloists typical of the whole performance: decent, solid voices who also sang in the chorus throughout. Flamboyant charisma is by no means always appropriate in this music, and it was salutary to be offered the chance the appreciate Bach with no soloistic impositions – although a touch more personality may sometimes have been beneficial. Pick of the bunch was Dorothee Mields – if only for her delightful smiles and resemblance to a young Emma Kirkby.

Both choir and orchestra excelled: there was never any doubt that these musicians are steeped in Bach and in stylish performance-practice. Horn-player Teunis van der Zwart gave a bravura account of the solo in the bass aria ‘Quoniam’, making the fiendish liabilities of hand-stopping seem easy. Marcel Ponseele’s oboe d’amore solo in ‘Qui sedes’ was sumptuously silky, and Patrick Beuckels provided a beguilingly delicate flute solo over gossamer strings in ‘Domine Deus’. Orchestral articulation throughout was crisp and alert, but also light and appealing, the historically-informed style entirely natural.

The chorus – mainly two to a part, with three on each soprano line – was wonderfully agile and made a remarkably full sound when required. The singers’ greatest moment to shine came in the glorious ‘Sanctus’ for which they re-arranged themselves in double-choir formation to terrific effect in Bach’s magnificent 8-part antiphony. ‘Sanctus’, and the vibrantly swaggering ‘Osanna’, were the two most unequivocally successful movements, unashamedly extrovert and celebratory. At some other moments Herreweghe’s understated approach seemed too reserved for this grand-scale work, occasionally perversely so: his apparent determination to ensure that the trumpets did not overwhelm resulted in a disappointingly recessed contribution. Pointing their bells towards the ground and positioned behind a pillar, the three trumpeters were barely audible in the ‘Gloria’ and, more detrimentally still, the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. This was an especial pity because Herreweghe’s upbeat pace and positivity here ensured what was otherwise a resounding, life-affirming conclusion – in contrast to the misty-eyed autumnal quality of some performances.

It is rare these days to have the chance to experience appropriately-scaled, first-class performances of Baroque choral repertoire in suitable venues. When artists of this calibre come to town, they usually end up struggling to adapt their small-scale conception to the likes of the Barbican Hall or, even worse, the Royal Albert Hall, such is the public’s demand to attend. So it was a particular privilege to hear Herreweghe and company’s thoughtful and engaging account of this great work in such conducive surroundings.

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