Mass in B minor – I Fagionlini & Feinstein Ensemble at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Mass in B minor, BWV232

I Fagionlini [Anna Crookes & Julia Doyle (sopranos), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), William Purefoy (countertenor), Simon Wall & Matthew Long (tenors), Francis Brett (baritone) and Charles Gibbs (bass)]

Feinstein Ensemble
Martin Feinstein

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 25 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Bach’s Mass in B Minor is a big work – in length, scale and complexity. So for Martin Feinstein to reduce it using the bare minimum of singers and players was a big gamble. By and large it paid off, although not without a few losses along the way.

The performance marked the beginning of Feinstein’s Bach Weekend at Southbank Centre. Confusingly entitled “Final Words”, this opening concert sought to present the Mass in what Feinstein believes is its authentic version of one part per singer and instrument. Certainly, the initial effect was to brighten the score, exposing the complexity and beauty of Bach’s contrapuntal lines, and revealing the contrasting shades of his instrumental writing. The opening ‘Kyrie’ was a delight, warmly sung by the eight singer-soloists of I Fagionlini. Problems arose during the grandiose ‘Gloria’. Here Bach must have intended – or at least hoped for – the grand treatment, with its resounding chorus and the added orchestral drama of brass and timpani. The thinness of Feinstein’s version showed through, and the outnumbered chorus was washed out by the greater forces of the orchestra. Elsewhere, Feinstein’s players found out that one instrument per part means that there is nowhere to hide when things go wrong. There was, for example, some trumpet wobble at the start of the ‘Gloria’, and Leader Catherine Manson and her two violinist-colleagues never quite mastered some of their parts.

But these were fairly minor quibbles, and the quality of the overall performance was enhanced by the artistry of the singers. There was some surprising dryness in Clare Wilkinson’s ‘Qui sedes’, although the audience’s focus probably switched to Mark Baigent’s impeccable oboe obbligato. Elsewhere, Anna Crookes and Julia Doyle responded with real feeling to the letter and the spirit of Bach’s setting of the Latin text, while Simon Wall and Matthew Long vied with William Purefoy for most outstanding male role.

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