The Bach Choir/David Hill – Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B-minor

J. S. Bach
Mass in B-minor, BWV232

Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), James Oxley (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass)

The Bach Choir

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
David Hill

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 11 February, 2020
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

For this, The Bach Choir’s 1050th concert, we heard J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, a piece that it has performed on 68 other occasions, not least for the Choir’s inaugural appearance back in 1876: the Mass is this choir’s raison d’être. Walking off from the busy streets and paths of life to hear such a monumental and accessible work such as this proved a great balm.

The Bach Choir, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with David Hill and Gemma Summerfield, Robin Blaze, James Oxley, Peter Harvey at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall

What happens far too often with this music is that it is given performances that interfere with it: reduced orchestra, small choirs, ‘informed’ performances. All fine in their place, but sadly these seem to have overtaken a ‘playing of the notes’. That was corrected here. What stood this magnificent account out, under David Hill’s meticulous yet free direction, was that the notes sprang from the page. Hill was well-served by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, too: glorious playing across the board, but especially trumpets and corno da caccia soloist (no names given in the programme), where the warmth of the sound exalted proceedings yet further. The heady mixture of glorification of God through music was realised here, and the silences counted, too.

Hill was also, obviously, served superbly by the 220 members of The Bach Choir. That strength was expertly deployed: diction with and feeling of the words counted for a lot. As did care with internal balances, where Bach’s wondrous hymns were expertly dispatched. The group of sopranos made for heavenly listening. Gemma Summerfield’s ‘Laudamus te’ set a high standard for the other soloists, but was certainly matched, and not least by the solo violinist here. Robin Blaze summed up what was a great contribution throughout with the a very moving ‘Agnus Dei’: he draws you into this private communication superbly. They may have less to do, but James Oxley and Peter Harvey made their parts count: and both impressively so with Orchestra.

The last words must go to The Choir and Hill: for such forces to navigate this wonder of mankind with such ease, creating for us, the listeners, a spiritually rewarding journey: this is what marked out such great music-making as on this occasion, and they served so very well Johann Sebastian Bach, who never himself had such an opportunity.

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