Prom 26: Bach’s Mass in B minor [The English Concert/Harry Bicket]

Mass in B minor, BWV232

Joélle Harvey & Carolyn Sampson (sopranos), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Ed Lyon (tenor) and Matthew Rose (bass)

Choir of the English Concert

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Reviewed by: Simon Thomas

Reviewed: 2 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Harry BicketJ. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor came right at the end of his career and used a good deal of material from earlier cantatas. It’s a work of depth and majestic beauty, one of the great landmarks of Western music. Compared to the narrative drive of the Passions, however, it lacks drama, hardly surprising for a lengthy setting, running to 27 sections and containing close to two hours of music. Unperformed in its entirety for a century after Bach’s death, the B minor Mass has been much argued over by scholars, and the origins and motivations for this unusual composition remain a matter for conjecture.

Iestyn Davies. Photograph: Marco Borggreve, 2010Harry Bicket gathered together some bright younger singers for this Proms performance. Joélle Harvey has been seen at Glyndebourne of late (appearing with Carolyn Sampson in The Fairy Queen and soon to tour as Mozart’s Susanna) and this was a notable BBC Proms debut. In fact, it was altogether a dazzling line-up, Sampson (replacing Malin Christensson) one of the finest baroque voices of our time and with the male artists all exceptional.

Despite the prominence of trumpets and drums in several sections, and a full choir rather than one singer per part, this is a work of great intimacy, ideally suited to a smaller space rather than the Royal Albert Hall and its testing acoustic. This wasn’t much in evidence but the violin solo that accompanied Sampson’s aria, ‘Laudamuste’, suffered a little, as did the singer herself, usually the brightest of sopranos, sounding here rather recessed.

The latter stages of ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, despite a vibrant solo horn, also sounded a bit muddy but these were minor blemishes in an otherwise thrilling account by Bicket and The English Concert. The Choir of the English Concert was superb, too, with a wonderful definition in the voices, and a hushed ‘Et incarnates est’ that was particularly electrifying. Iestyn Davies shone in his solos, the ‘Agnus Dei’ the vocal highlight of the evening.

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