Bach’s B Minor Mass: VOCES8 and the AAM on Easter Sunday

In 1818, the Swiss musician, writer and publisher Hans Georg Nägeli (1773–1836) issued a public advertisement announcing an ambitious publishing project, which would make a new Mass, that he had acquired from the estate of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, available for the first time.  He described this unpublished Latin Mass as ‘the Greatest Musical Work of Art of All Times and Nations’.

This is the work that we know today as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  We know of no performance of the complete Mass during Bach’s lifetime, and of only partial performances in the during the eighteenth century, some of which were in secular concert settings.  In the early 19th-century, before the Mendelssohn-led revival, Bach’s music was not at its zenith and if the composer was considered at all, it was as a master of fugue.  Nägeli’s assertion was, then, quite remarkable; that, even today, we do not flinch at its hyperbolic claims of global and temporal ascendancy, suggests that in some ways Nägeli was not far from the mark in recognising the strange union of timeless transcendence and human experience which Bach achieved in his heterogenous assemblage – 27 movements representing a comprehensive span of polyphonic forms and compositional techniques, for solo voice and diverse choral groups, featuring a Baroque orchestra with solo obbligati, and encompassing musical styles from the old polyphonic style of Palestrina to more modern Italianate styles.

I remember when, as a teenager, I first heard, and then later played (with local choral societies in drafty churches), Bach’s B Minor Mass: with its huge forces and musicological and liturgical complexity, it seemed to me to be almost of too great a magnitude to comprehend, and consequently rather ‘distant’, a cerebral affirmation of faith.  The smaller forces and faster tempos that have come to be preferred in recent times over the cathedral-filling sonorities of the early-Bach revival, have since revealed the humanity, and humanism, of the Mass to me. 

AAM and VOCES8 conducted by Barnaby Smith

It was this union of heavenly glory and earthly achievement that I hoped to find in this Easter Sunday performance by VOCES8 and the Academy of Ancient Music, not least because it’s hard to think of a more desirable ‘dream-team’ of soloists: soprano Carolyn Sampson, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor Jeremy Budd and bass-baritone Matthew Brook, with the AAM being guest-led by ‘queen of the Baroque violin’, Rachel Podger.  And, sometimes dreams do come true.  The Mass might seem to serve as Bach’s musical legacy – he borrowed heavily from his pre-existing cantatas – and the letter of dedication to the court of Dresden, to whom he presented the Kyrie in 1733 only seems to confirm this intention, describing the offering as ‘small work of that science which I have achieved in musique’.  But, this performance revealed the true power of Bach’s union of ‘science’, spirituality and song.  While undoubtedly a Christian work in a general sense, though refusing to fit into the liturgical form of any specific faith, the B Minor Mass is essentially, supremely, ‘music’ – spiritual and secular in equal measure.  And, here we had music that was both technically immaculate and replete with human warmth.

From the opening bars of the ‘Kyrie’, this warmth and light swelled around the Norman pillars of the Church of St Bartholomew the Great – the oldest parish church in London, nestled in Smithfield, the heart of the City.  There were 22 instrumentalists and 15 singers – the soloists joining with the choruses – yet the majesty of the appeal, “Lord have mercy”, intimated forces much larger.  With deep wells of colour in the soprano sound and strong energy from the men, this was an arresting opening statement.  In the instrumental Largo which follows, conductor Barnaby Smith once again found that organic flow that was such a feature of VOCES8’s performance with the English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall two days earlier.  The music may have been fugal but there was nothing mechanical about it: Podger encouraged a singing quality from her fellow instrumentalists and when the voices entered, the angular melodies were shaped like songful vocal phrases, nuanced, with impeccable intonation, the harmonic twists and turns made to seem inevitable.

Carolyn Sampson and Eleonore Cockerham

The joyful first duet for two sopranos, ‘Christe eleison’, set the tone for the entire performance: Podger, Smith and the two soloists, Carolyn Sampson and Eleonore Cockerham, did not seem to stop smiling, as the accurate, clean, vocal roulades unfolded easily.  In Bach’s churches the solo lines were probably usually sung by members of the choir, but here the individuality of the voices was welcome, Sampson’s soprano gleaming at the top, Cockerham offering warmth and movement beneath.  Throughout the duet, and the whole Mass, Smith coaxed and encouraged his musicians, so obviously enjoying their performances as much as he was guiding them.

As at Cadogan Hall, Smith demonstrated a sure instinct for tempo.  The alla breve repetition of the Kyrie text balanced affecting suffering with the potential for redemption, the beat weighty but imbued with forward motion.  The same quality was true of the chorus, ‘Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam’ where lithe bass lines swept the music onwards.  In this slow ‘Kyrie’, the singers’ attention to the text was notable, and gave the music a theatrical quality.  It was interesting that in the pre-performance discussion between Smith and the four soloists, Iestyn Davies had drawn attention to the way that the Mass shares with Messiah an alternation of “tension and release”, and I began to notice this more and more during this performance, alongside the word-painting that we more readily associate with Handel.

The ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ was a rumbustious dance, the trumpets and timpanis – positioned behind Smith, facing the orchestra from a distance – providing vigour and colour.  Smith kept the motivic figures in the voices buoyant and free, and the hemiolas went with a proverbial swing.  The shift into ‘Et in terra pax’ was confident and dramatic.

Barnaby Smith

Carolyn Sampson had the first solo aria, ‘Laudamus te’, and what a delight it must have been for her to have Rachel Podger flowing through the violin’s obliggato melody with such deliciously tender tone, the slitherings relaxed but with elegant definition and shape.  Sampson’s evenness and ease were impressive, as were cellist Joseph Crouch’s attention to the nuances in the continuo line.  Sampson was joined by Jeremy Budd in ‘Domine Deus’, and by flautist Rachel Brown whose bright purity brought out the shine in Sampson’s soprano.  We are most accustomed to hearing Budd in roles which require him to put his lovely soft haute-contre to good use, but if this duet kept him in lower regions, the shared precision of the singers’ running semiquavers was impressive, and Budd’s occasional flights upwards had an added earnestness and intensity.  Again, Smith made the details tell, the brief instrumental conversations with the vocal lines creating an intimate mood.

Iestyn Davies

After a sombre ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, Iestyn Davies exhibited profound musical insight and technical assurance in ‘Qui sedes ad dextram Patris’.  This was a lovely blend of colours: the rich nasality of Mark Baigent’s oboe, the slightly dry, light string quavers, and Davies clear, cool countertenor, which wrapped itself with ease around Bach’s curls and leaps.  His melodic phrasing emphasised the textual meaning.   After the flights of “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” (Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father) – executed with marvellous control of ornament, line and breath – came the firmness and sincerity of “miserere nobis” (have mercy upon us).  The even more extravagant final repetition, deliciously smooth, culminated in a hopeful, lighter, rising appeal, as if launched on the angels’ wings towards heaven.

Matthew Brook enjoyed ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ immensely.  Singing from his place in the choral ranks, his bass was strong, individualised, with a slight grain.  He had power and stamina – there was never a sense of a flutter – and agility and clarity, right down to the lowest depths.  The text, “tu solus altissimus Jesu Christe” (thou only, O Jesus Christ, art most high), couldn’t have been sung with more conviction.  Gavin Edwards obliggato horn was a joy to behold, relaxed, colourful, perfectly tuned, and he was joined by bassoonists Ursula Leveaux and Philip Turbett who executed their lively lines with a light but characterful touch.

Gavin Edwards

Smith’s sense of drama served him well.  The chorus, ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, launched like a rocket, with a roar and a flash of light.  This was thrilling music-making, not least as the singing and playing were so accurate despite the audacious pace, but also because one felt that everyone wanted to go faster still as they whipped up the joy.  The energy was sustained through the solo quartet section, and the “Amen” brought musical lift-off, the piquant harmonies of the close adding a turbo charge to the blaze of light and colour.

An air of theatre, in the sense of real communication, continued in Sampson’s and Davies’ duet, ‘Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum’.  The voices didn’t so much as blend, as complement, and both singers made one really feel the meaning of the text.  The closing statement, “Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis” (Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven) was vivid and moving.

Smith did not neglect the moments of poise and sobriety, though.  The ‘Et incarnatus est’ throbbed and burned with anguish, the weighty bass pedal repetitions, fragile sobs of the violins, and the piling up of the choral voices creating a sombre intensity.  In the following ‘Crucifixus’ the pain of Christ’s faltering journey towards Calvary was embodied in the sharp accents and dark bass.  And, then there was light.  After the downward pull, now all was uplift and ascent.  Brook’s contribution to the choral sound was notable, and it was lovely to have such strong bass voices in the ‘Et resurrexit’.  Brook’s second turn in the solo spotlight followed, and in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum’ he evinced patrician benevolence, finding a softer grain to complement the two oboe d’amore, and singing with a lovely legato through the long phrases.  The final line, “Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” (And in one holy catholic and apostolic Church) was deeply communicative.

Matthew Brook

“Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth” begins the Sanctus and there could be no doubt at all that the Lord truly is “Holy, holy, holy”.  The sound was expansive and sustained, the massed ensemble mass, assertive plunging octave pronouncements, “Sanctus” and timpani thunder blows being softened by the flowing triplets of the ladies’ voices.  When we reached “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria eius” (heaven and earth are full of his glory), Smith and his musicians showed us what fun a fugue could be, and the collective joy continued in ‘Osanna in excelsis’.

After such a sequence of wonderful musical offerings it seems impossible that there can be more riches to come but Bach gives his tenor and alto soloists exquisite final statements.  In ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Dominie’ (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) we finally heard Budd’s beautifully gentle high tenor, which he employed with great expressivity, make each and every re-statement of “qui venit” seem slightly different, as the music strove to convey its truth. 

Jeremy Budd

The first note of Iestyn Davies’ ‘Agnus Dei’ seemed to have arrived fully formed, plucked from another world wherein it was already sounding.  The first vocal phrase was quiet, a little withdrawn; then, there was greater presence and forward impetus, as Davies used every nuance of harmony and text to compel the listener’s ear.  It was as if Davies had joined the violin section which accompanied him, bending his voice like a string quartet player in response to the collective sound. Sustained notes travelled through spectrums of colour and weight, but always the line was seamless.  A surprising richness imbued the lower notes, while the top shone with characteristic pristine strength and clarity.   

The final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ was tender and radiant.  It was like being wrapped in a warm, soft blanket of sound.  “Grant us peace”, they sang, and the music truly did.

There has been so much sadness in the world, but this was the music of happiness.  Christ has risen.  There can be rebirth and renewal, not just in heaven but also on earth.  Bach knew this, as Haydn recognised, remarking in 1799 that Bach was ‘the man from whom all true musical wisdom proceeded’.

Claire Seymour

Bach: Mass in B Minor BWV 232

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Eleonore Cockerham (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass baritone), VOCES8, Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Podger, guest leader), Barnaby Smith (conductor)

St Bartholomew’s Church, London (live stream); Sunday 4th April 2021