The chapter John Eliot Gardiner dedicates to Bach’s B Minor Mass in his book on the composer is titled ‘The Art of Perfection’. The Mass is a work whose formal purity and artistic invention can appear unassailable, even inaccessible. The Bach Choir have explored it for over a century and returned to it once more with studied intensity in this performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
The extraordinary Credo sequence, cast in nine movements, provided some of the most compelling music making of the evening. Conductor David Hill’s ‘Et incarnatus…’ was miraculous in its glowing halo of sound, with the first syllables of the ‘Crucifixus’ as bitter and penetrating as the nails driven into Christ’s hands and feet. The falling figure of the ‘sepultus est’ seemed to reach into the earth itself, before orchestra and chorus burst out of the gates in a blaze of defiant hope at ‘Et resurrexit tertia…’ It did take a while for things to get going in the first part of the evening: ‘Et in terra pax’ felt rather workmanlike and formless, and the ‘Gloria’ was a sculpted, elegant dance that perhaps wanted for some divine fire.
The tentative opening of ‘et expecto resurrectionem…’ had just enough clouds of mystery, even doubt, in its searching harmonies and breathtaking quietness, before exploding to life with the OAE’s trumpets and drums as its ‘Amens’ accumulated ever more energy. Before a broad and enfolding ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ we were treated to sumptuous, bravura ‘Osanna’ sequences, whose unaccompanied, declamatory opening is a keen reminder how central massed unified voices were to Bach.
The soloists in this enormous work provide points of punctuation and elaboration; here they were unobtrusive and collegiate, with contributions that did not threaten to distort from Hill’s architectural overview. Baritone Peter Harvey has a warm, creamy timbre, comfortable in the lyrical upper reaches of ‘Et in spiritum sanctum’. Countertenor Robin Blaze has an incisive yet rounded upper register that made the first notes of Bach’s extraordinary ‘Agnus Dei’ heart-stopping in its beauty, even if marred by some intonation and projection issues earlier.
Gemma Summerfield’s sound was the most luminescent of the four, and made a delightful contrast with Blaze’s more softer, more muted colour in their ‘Christe eleison’ duet. Tenor James Oxley negotiated the upper reaches of his ‘Benedictus’ solo with some elegance.
The OAE is an orchestra with irrepressible character. That they took a backseat for the most part owes to there being over one hundred and fifty singers behind them. Nonetheless their sonic stamp was there, not least in the spare rhetoric of Adrian Bending’s timpani or the pair of flutes in the ‘Qui Tollis’. Those who play baroque natural horns should be paid danger money: Ursula Monberg’s fearless solo in the ‘Quoniam’ had a garrulous nobility. Matthew Truscott’s violin in the ‘Laudamus Te’ sparkled with spontaneity, though a brusque tempo meant scant time to enjoy the effusive passagework.