JS Bach: B Minor Mass

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Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 23rd December 2013

Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra and joined by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge for a performance of Bach's masterpiece

I must confess, I was apprehensive at the prospect of hearing Bach’s B Minor Mass in Hall One of Kings Place. Having last experienced it in the gloomy vastness of a cathedral I feared the intense, crystalline acoustic might somehow confine and diminish the greatest mass ever written. I was wrong. From the moment the shining voices of Clare College Choir burst into the Kyrie, the hall seemed to awake and resound, so that as each blazing chorus ended a clear echo answered from on high, like a breath released, a ghostly affirmation I’ve never heard before.

This was the culmination of Kings Place’s year-long Bach Unwrapped series and having sat through a number of end-of-term concerts in recent weeks, the B Minor Mass struck me anew as a sort of celestial end-of-term bonanza to beat them all. In its succession of jewel-like parts everyone has their moment in the sun, and each spot-lit instrumentalist stood to play their solos: from plangent horn and jaunty bassoon duo with baritone (Benedict Nelson), to soprano (Malin Christensson) and first violinist (the nimble, sweet-toned Alexandra Wood) the guttural melancholy of oboe d’amore (Thomas Barber) with clarion countertenor (William Towers) and the last word in grace afforded the flute (agile Jane Mitchell) with tenor (the wonderfully natural Joshua Ellicott) while the trio of natural trumpeters gilded each rousing chorus with angelic splendour. Musically, too, Bach presents us with a conspectus of styles – from the galant elegance of the ‘Christe eleison’ duet to the Gregorian chant and archaic settings of the ‘Credo in unum Deum’.

The first half took a while to settle, with conductor Nicholas Collon somewhat impetuous in his tempi. While the opening Kyrie was allowed space to grow, a sonorous soprano Jennifer Johnston and Malin Christensson struggled to keep up in the ‘Christe eleison’, and, again, in the ‘Laudamus te’, Christensson's dark-toned but small soprano felt constrained by the hyper-vitality of the orchestra, and its rather solid full continuo. She warmed up in her ‘Dominus Deus’ duet with Ellicott, while his clear, honeyed tenor made for a magical ‘Benedictus’. Benedict Nelson was in fine voice but appeared uncomfortably glued to his score, while William Towers produced the most touching performance of all in a heart-stopping ‘Agnus Dei’.

The second half benefited from Collon’s deft touch, with not a moment’s pall in its dramatic sweep (indeed, a slightly longer pause between the crucifixion and the resurrection might have been seemly) culminating in a Sanctus and Agnus Dei of genuine majesty. Cellist Oliver Coates exuded a sense of joy and privilege in his playing, but highest praise must go to the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, who are under the direction of rising star Graham Ross. Unlike the University boat teams, a college choir cannot fall back on mature opera students but works with the undergraduate voices to hand, which makes the contrapuntal clarity, fluency and special radiance of their singing all the more impressive.

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
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