JS Bach: Soprano Katherine Watson sings in two Mass in B minor sets

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Hyperion CDA
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Katherine Watson (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Neal Davies (bass); Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Layton
CATALOGUE NO: 68181-2

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Hyperion added a ‘Bach in B minor’ to its catalogue as recently as 2014, and now here comes another – like Arcangelo’s, recorded after the experience of performing the work in concert. There the similarities end. Jonathan Cohen mustered a choir of 20. Here Stephen Layton goes for the full burn with more than 40 voices and an orchestra luxuriating in 14 violins. For ears increasingly accustomed to minimalist Bach, a ‘retro’ adjustment is required as the Kyrie unfolds textures not always ideally clear. 

Layton evidently likes to keep things in the family. Three of the five soloists augmenting his crack Trinity Choir studied at the Cambridge college, and Iestyn Davies was at St John’s. The countertenor discharges a beautifully inflected ‘Qui sedes’, impeccably warmed and coloured by a discreet vibrato that instinctively knows its expressive place. Neal Davies’ resonant ‘Quoniam tu solus’ is egged on by the gravelly chuckles of bassoons and roistering French horn, while Katherine Watson’s soaring soprano also strikes up an alluring partnership with Iestyn Davies for the ‘Et in unum Deum’. 

One of the challenges for any conductor is marrying the Mass’s old-fashioned and up-to-the- minute elements while forging a coherent whole. Layton is on the case. After a splendidly august ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ comes a ‘Domine Deus’ in which Katherine Watson and Gwilym Bowen flirt as if Bach had written an operatic love duet. Overall, perhaps not everything stacks up; but when the choir is on fire, as at the end of the ‘Et expecto resurrectionem’, reservations fly out of the window. 

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Paul Riley