B minor Mass

Bach
Mass in B minor

Katharine Fuge (soprano)
Renata Pokupić (mezzo-soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)

Monteverdi Choir

English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 15 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It was interesting to read in the ‘Further listening and reading’ section of the programme that Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Mass in B minor is considered “middle-of-the-road”. Whatever this label might mean in actuality, Gardiner’s concert performance was devoid of any clear-cut stylistic approach, which, coupled with deficiencies of execution and interpretation, ultimately ensured it was a frustrating experience.

Of course the English Baroque Soloists sported so-called ‘period’ instruments, with variable results, and the Monteverdi Choir is a mixed-voice body, of the kind Bach would not have envisaged performing this music if, indeed, he had a specific grouping in mind.

The members of the Monteverdi Choir did all that the conductor asked of them and responded with a will to Gardiner’s baton-less and score-less direction. This included some impossibly mannered phrasing from the ‘Kyrie’ onwards, where various groups of notes were ‘tapered’ away and clipped articulation broke up the line. Not all these ideas, however, were consistently applied across the parts, be they instrumental or vocal. In some of the faster-moving passages, such as those in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, Gardiner’s very rapid tempos posed challenges, which the choir rose to, the odd tentative entry aside. One admired the response, but Bach’s B minor Mass is about rather more than whether or not musicians can execute semiquavers at a fast tempo.

Like the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists is Gardiner’s handpicked team; one expects these players to be used to the conductor’s approach and up to his demands. They played adequately, though it would be idle to pretend that the myriad details of Bach’s scoring came across fully effectively in this particular performing space.

The keyboard continuo was shared between a chamber organ and harpsichord. I have some doubts as to whether this two-way approach was appropriate – as a general rule in the Baroque era the harpsichord was confined to secular music; in any case it was inaudible for most of the time and unsuitable when not.

The obbligato instruments were well enough played – the oboes d’amore impressed particularly. In the ‘Domine Deus’ the flute was obliged to alter the notated rhythm from even semiquavers to a kind of lopsided ‘scotch snap’ (demisemiquaver followed by dotted semiquaver), which did not seem at all apt, especially as, again, there was a lack of consistency in its application, and the singers eschewed it altogether.

One really admired Susan Dent for her playing of the natural horn in the bass aria ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, even when notes did not sound properly or emerge securely – although, given the recalcitrance of the instrument involved, one questioned just how effective this apparently ‘authentic’ approach is. Coupled with bassoons adding extra trills galore and a soloist who found the pitch rather too low, this movement was not the most comfortable of experiences.

Bach’s writing for trumpets is so well judged that it’s a shame when their participation is as reticent as here. Valve-less instruments were used, of course, and sometimes it was difficult to tell whether or not they were actually playing. But the biggest deficiency was with the out-of-tune timpani. The pitch for this performance was nominally ‘Baroque’ – i.e. about a semitone lower than is now customary – but the timpani sounded at least a semitone sharp. The player made a perfunctory attempt to re-tune, but the result was painful.

On paper, the soloists appeared a strong team. Katharine Fuge has an attractive tone, if a touch on the small side for the RAH, and whilst her clarity of diction and articulation were laudable, the overall impression was a curiously anonymous one. Having opted for five soloists (rather than the customary four), it seemed strange to deploy two mezzo-type singers, since Bach specifically requests a second soprano. In fact, Renata Pokupić’s darker sound contrasted well with Fuge’s in the ‘Christe eleison’, but struggled rather more in the ‘Laudamus te’, not surprisingly given the almost impossibly fast speed Gardiner adopted, which also left violinist Alison Bury wrestling with her part.

Sara Mingardo was poised and dignified, but the lower pitch did not seem entirely comfortable for her in the ‘Agnus Dei’, which also found her singing the start of the final section in an expectant and hushed mezza-voce, as if we had momentarily strayed into a Gluck opera. Mark Padmore was successful in the awkward writing of the ‘Benedictus’, even at a strangely slow tempo. Once past his encounter with the natural horn and trilling bassoons, the admirable Dietrich Henschel found his form in ‘et in spiritum sanctum’. He also – authentically – took his place amongst the chorus, which the other soloists didn’t.

Apart from the oddities already mentioned, Gardiner engaged in further quirks. One of the strangest was the cutting of the orchestral conclusion to the ‘Osanna’ on its second appearance, Gardiner ending the movement with an exquisitely shaped ritenuto from the choir.

One praiseworthy feature, however, was his disinclination to linger between sections, and the segued passages were handled convincingly. The ‘presentation’ of the work was not convincing, however, with soloists moving to different positions during orchestral introductions and codas. Some of the instrumental soloists stood for their contributions. The final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ began in an air of awed, hushed reverence, more suited to a Bruckner Mass setting; an overtly ‘Romantic’ crescendo ensued, at the conclusion of which Gardiner kept his hands aloft in priestly fashion as if to hold back any irreverent applause from intruding.

Bach’s B minor Mass is not one dependent on performer acumen for its effect. Words like ‘spiritual’ are not especially fashionable these days, but a devotional conception is what Bach had – most of all in this work. It was like being invited to wonder at John Eliot Gardiner’s control of his forces. This performance drew attention to itself rather than enabling the audience to experience and share Bach’s transcendental vision.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 26 August at 2.30 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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