It was an evening of pure ethereal bliss. The Collegium Vocale Gent from Belgium came down to town to perfrom Bach's Mass in B minor. This ensemble founded by Philippe Herreweghe in 1970 is renowned for their interpretation of Baroque music and boasts of over 70 recordings since they were established.
The Mass in B minor was written when Bach was still holding the post of Kapellmeister at St. Thomas in Leipzig. The first question that seems to strike most people upon the realisation of the existance of this work is probably why Bach, a most devout Lutheran, would compose a Mass of such monumental proportion. Of course, the simple explanation that the work was too long to be used for a Catholic service was often put forth to appease the simple-minded that Bach was still the man with a firm protestant faith, but it doesn't quite answer the question about the significance of such this masterpiece. An honest listening to the music actually hinted a deeper and more meaningful significance of this work.
In this work, Bach had used a multitude of styles, from the traditional motets to the contemporary concerto and the different fugal forms, each honed to the highest level in both the ripieno singers and concertino singers movements. The existance of such a colourful myriad of styles hints at a composition to showcase the composer's compositional techniques, rather than one with a more coherent musical content. On top of that, the departure of the standard Latin text and standard structure of certain sections would bar its use from both the Catholic and Protestant masses. Given the importance and significance of the mass in traditional vocal music, it wouldn't be surprising that Bach would actually like to try his hands on this particular 'form' of vocal music which has proven itself to be able to withstand the onslaught of time and changing musical tastes.
Back to the performance last evening. The ensemble was conducted by the founder, Philippe Herreweghe, with Johanette Zomer (Soprano I & II), Damien Guillon (Countertenor), Julius Pfeifer (Tenor) and Thomas E. Bauer (Bass) as the concertino singers. So many aspects to talk about, but I guess I'll start with the conductor and ripieno section, for this work focusses on the choral genre instead of the concertino section, unlike his dramatic Passions and oratorio.
As Philippe Herreweghe walked onto the stage, he looked frail and walked with uneven steps, probably due to hsi old age. Nothing of the power and confidence that exude from the most of the professional orchestral conductors. Let me warn you, looks are deceiving. Beneath that facade is a man of true passion for and knowledge of music. Upon the sounding of the first tutti B min chord, our conductor was brought alive, infused with a musical sensitivity of the highest order. Nothing showy about his actions, but each and every minute action on his part yield a most charming musical effect by his very own ensemble.
Not having the chance to listen to this ensemble before, I was expecting a solemn and rigid playing posture which is characteristic of various professional groups which I had come across in the past few years. I was probably blinded by the fact that they are playing and singing a sacred vocal work. Nothing could be further away from the truth. The ensemble, under the leadership of their conductor, breathed life into this most marvellous work and at the same time, swaying together in the most harmonious and aesthetically pleasing manner. (Not everyone would agree with what they were doing, nor would I agree with every ensemble playing like that all the time, but the way they did it last evening was sure not exaggerated, neither did it affect their playing much from my perspective.) I was pretty amused by this violist who had a pretty awkward right hand position of holding the bow, but apparently enjoying herself as she joins in the music making with the rest of the ensemble. It's sure a most wonderful feeling to be able to make such lovely music with a group of dedicated musicians who feel and think the same way as you do. Alright, guess I should go back to my main topic...
In the ripieno chorus movements of the work, the one which struck me most last evening was no doubt the Cruxifixus. The musicians did justice to Bach's most refined instrumentation in that movement and on top of that, brought out the most potent effect that Bach had created in the concluding section of the movement. As the last two words sepultus est were sung in a cappella style, one could really feel the entire concert hall holding their breath. For that particular moment, time truly stopped and we were all surrounded by the grandest architecture of sounds.
The concertino section were truly charming last evening as well. Well, I didn't quite like the idea of the sole soprano taking on the parts of the two soprano soloists which Bach had intended. As such, the Soprano II role in Christe eleison was taken on by the countertenor. But despite that authenticity flaw, I was still charmed by their duet, with the violin I and II providing the other voice.
I just love the four arias in Gloria. In each, a different principal orchestral instrument is used for the solo, with the solo violin in Laudamus te, solo transverse flute in Domine Deus, the solo oboe d'amore in Qui sedes ad destram Patris, the solo horn in Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Bach gave the four solo instruments, together with the solo singers the most charming and highly individual parts, and blended them together in the most wonderful manner. The last was probably marred by some wrong notes and quite a string of notes with bad intonation, but I guess it's tough for the horn to be just playing one movement for the entire work, coupled with the fact of having to wait quite some time before the movement commences. A horn isn't exactly an easy orchestral instrument to play anyway.
The oboes were especially beautiful, with their most charming tone, coupled with a matured musical sense of the oboists. Oboe d'amore to be more specific. My favourite concertino section would have to be Et in Spiritum Sanctum in the Credo section, with the two oboe d'amore playing the solo instrument parts. They just sound so lovely with the bass last evening. Alright, it's probably a biased comment, for I have always loved the oboe.
As for the Benedictus, they gave the solo instrument part to the transverse flute. The basic practice in their time and all the way up to Beethoven was to attribute the part to the solo violin. In the case of this work, since Bach didn't specify which instrument to take the solo and the tuning fits that of a transverse flute more than that of the violin, I guess that interpretation is justified.
The interpretation of the work on the whole was just the way this masterpiece deserves - refined, charged with life and filled with the most profound spiritual truth. For the whole two hours, I believe that I didn't exist on this earth at all.
It is truly a work which shows forth Bach's invocation and praise for God Almighty. A work, as Christoph Wolff has aptly put it, to unite his creed as a Christian with his creed as a musician in a single statement.