Yale Schola Cantorum bring fire and refinement to Bach’s Mass in B minor

The official website for Yale Schola Cantorum (part of Connecticut’s Ivy League research university) somewhat matter-of-factly describes the group as “a chamber choir that performs sacred music from the sixteenth century to the present day in concert settings and choral services around the world”. I guess excellence is implied there, for what I heard at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the second leg of their six-venue UK tour was one of the finest choirs anywhere in the United States, one that enjoys an international reputation second to none. Add renowned choral conductor David Hill to these talented young musicians and you have a world-beating group of singers, many of whom are more than capable soloists. For Bach’s monumental choral work, they have teamed up with New York’s period-ensemble Julliard415, a band which boasts the crème de la crème of young players along the East Coast.

Nearly a century ago, Otto Klemperer considered the Mass in B minor “the greatest and most unique music ever written”. Few listeners would argue with that, even if their understanding was on an intuitive level, with the work’s complex polyphony trumped by an irrefutable sense of gravitas and splendour. Nor would many contradict the notion that performances work best with small forces or, so not to offend gargantuan choral societies, large forces that can adopt a low-fat approach with period style agility. In this instance, the 31 singers of Yale Schola Cantorum and the 30 instrumentalists of Julliard415 formed a near ideal group fulfilling the need to be athletic, while having the necessary weight when required. This performance, where blend and flawless intonation could be taken for granted, brought a freshness of delivery, the sound always energised, its physical impact as involving and uplifting as any professional ensemble.

As one might expect from Hill, tempi were well-judged and largely on the fleet side, though never inappropriate for the forces at the venue. It was Wagner who described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”. That may be so, but Bach surely got there first. His dance credentials were outlined in thick marker pen with the bravura tempo of ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, its pace arousing consternation from my neighbour, whose look of disbelief soon turned to wonder. Clarity of articulation and control of note values were brilliantly achieved, the whole rigorously disciplined, yet possessing edge-of-seat-drama, Bach’s religious faith never more explicit. No less exciting was the sugar-rush that gripped the choir at the prospect of the Resurrection, singing and playing electrifying, with sturdy basses adding their distinctive timbre for ‘Et iterum venturis…’, one of the most virtuosic passages for any chorus member.

There was plenty of forward momentum in the recurring stile antico portions such as ‘Dona nobis pacem’, here its archlike traversal instinctively shaped and its soaring phrases bringing accumulating emotional intensity. Diction was unfailingly crisp, with the explosive cry of ‘Kyrie’ slicing the air. Elsewhere, ‘Et incarnatus est’, proved to be the expressive centre of the ‘Credo’, the neighbouring ‘Crucifixus’ finding a welcome balance between barbed enunciation and numbed grief, the placing of the final chord sublime. Donald Tovey once described the ‘Sanctus’ as “representing the swinging of censers by the angelic seraphim”. If that image arose from a stately tempo, Christ in majesty was conjured here, the choir rising to the occasion as the basses got into their stride.

Amongst the solo contributions drawn from the choir and orchestra, there were numerous standout moments. It is almost invidious to single out individuals, mention should be made, inter alia, of Fredy Bonilla (bass) and a seemingly fearless Carys Sutherland (French horn) who brought exceptional musicianship to ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. Ellen Robertson (soprano) and Trevor Scott (tenor) were suitably mellifluous in ‘Domine Deus’, their flowing phrases supported by Nuria Canales Rubio’s scintillating flute, her playing greatly enhanced by decorative flourishes. The ‘Laudamus te’ found a winning partnership in Juliet Ariadne Papadopoulos’s jewel-like soprano and a nimble-fingered Christina Prats Costa (violin), while the ‘Agnus Dei’ blazed with conviction, Sandy Sharis (alto) adding burnished tone to the sculpted phrasing of the violins. Overall, Julliard415 produced a warm string sound, characterful woodwind solos and clean trumpet playing, never intrusive yet adding vital brilliance.

In summary, this was a compelling collaboration, singers and players showcasing skills well beyond their years, and Bach’s vision of the eternal gloriously communicated.

David Truslove

J.S. Bach
Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Yale Schola Cantorum
David Hill
St Martin-in-the-Fields, London 29 May 2024

Top image courtesy of Nicky Thomas Media.