Mass in B minor: J.S.Bach

Burhan Guner

Burhan Guner

 

U.W.A. Choral Society

Burhan Guner: conductor

Katja Webb (soprano), Sarah-Janet Dougiamas (mezzo), Roberto Abate (tenor) and Robert Hofmann (bass)

Winthrop Hall

 

reviewed by Stuart Hille

There are many sections of Bach’s ‘Mass in B minor’ which radiate unique inspiration and a masterful handling of the technique required to evoke and develop it.  So much of the ‘Symbolum Nicenum’ (Credo), as an extended example, has an incandescence and spiritual profundity rarely attained by other composers.  But then there are other tracts of the Mass, particularly in the ‘Gloria’ (containing nine separate divisions), where one perceives a relative lassitude in the presentation and unfolding of ideas.  Perhaps these ‘weaker’ moments – remembering we are discussing ‘weakness’  at the masterpiece level – result from Bach’s habit, born of necessity, of reusing material.  One can always assume this to be a standard practice in his larger works.  He used material from past works in present works and he reused material from present works in future works.  This is certainly the case in the ‘Gloria’ where one is all too aware of hearing something one has heard before, probably in a cantata.  So what is the cumulative effect of a merger of the strikingly original and the annexed?

There isn’t one: either the writing is brilliant, good or mediocre…for J.S.Bach.  This Mass contains it all.  Besides, one doesn’t get to sixty five years of age, marry twice, raise twenty children on a musician’s salary, travel and then compose vast amounts of music, often in great haste, without ‘borrowing’ and reworking old material!  Composers have done this throughout history but Bach, due to his eminence within the firmament of great composers and therefore subject to greater scrutiny, makes it more obvious.

Yet not only do a large number of musicologists describe the Mass in B minor as “sublime” or “supreme” but this determination has also become a part of the general collective thinking.  Perhaps it would be more practical to describe the work as a collection of the sublime, the good and the purely utilitarian, bordering on prosaic (and written over a substantial period of time).  In a quirky fashion, it is the variety of creative fashioning which makes the music even richer.

The ways in which the music is held together should have little to do with the performance of it.  They are, in a very real sense, separate considerations, although, it must be said, that the better the performance of a poorly written work, the more noticeable its flaws become.  On this occasion the UWA Choral Society’s reading was courageous though sometimes uneven.  While there were some areas where the singing deserved high praise for its clarity of line and balance of harmony, there were others which were less successful because of inaccuracies in exact pitching and a blurring of the contrapuntal texture (inexact rhythmic definition).

The opening of the Kyrie asserted its presence with a stamp of authority.  Through dynamic strength, inner balance, nicely rounded phrases and a comfortable tempo, one’s sense of positive anticipation was wakened.  This was indeed a bold statement.  But there were a few worrying signs: the sopranos pitching of high notes and the tenors and basses pitching of lower notes.  However at this stage, these were not sufficient to cause anything more than a ruffle in the texture.

By the time the duet ‘Christe eleison’, sung by Katja Webb (soprano) and Sarah-Janet Dougiamas (mezzo), had concluded, the previous choral concerns seemed to be forgotten.  This is probably due to Webb’s good rhythmic clarity and accuracy of pitch, and Dougiamas’s full, rich tone (although it could have been projected with slightly more penetration).  As a unity they formed a convincing exchange, a well poised reciprocity.

With the second ‘Kyrie eleison’ the balanced give-and-take shown by the vocal soloists (above) was not mirrored by the choir.  Concerns began to resurface.  After such a clear and spirited opening to the Mass, the four sections now seemed more intent upon displaying divisional prominence rather than working towards an overall unity of sound.  Consequently, the counterpoint, which is always reliant on balance, became muddied – blurred by singers more concerned with allegiance to the division rather than to the whole.  One could see Burhan Guner (conductor), while keeping a firm grasp on the tempo, was attempting to tone down the sopranos and basses.  If he could detect unevenness in the fabric while being so close to the action, it requires little imagination to sense how it sounded at the rear of Winthrop Hall.  Even experienced choristers, such as these, need to be reminded, from time to time, there is no place for divisional ‘egos’, if one can put it that way, in contrapuntal singing.

In the Gloria, taken as a whole, these difficulties of balance and pitch didn’t vanish but became less assertive.  Some of the places within this beautifully symmetrical architecture – the spirited trumpet in ‘Gloria in excelsis’ and the very fine texture of the ‘Laudamus te’ – were like scarabs in the design.  Yet there were other places where new problems were exposed.

 

The most significant of these, shown in both the ‘Et in terra pax’ and the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’, was a growing tendency, throughout the choir but most notably in the sopranos, to be too casual with ‘gap-fills’ (the string of smaller notes between more prominent notes in the melodic line).  These needed to be better articulated, through awareness of breath control, without becoming exaggerated.  However, when the line is too relaxed, as it was on this occasion, the prominent notes become altogether too conspicuous.  Similarly, the ‘Cum sancto spiritu’, although well paced and better pitched, was uneven in its flow because the gap-filling was somewhat perfunctory. 

  The Gloria also allowed the soloists greater prominence.  It is curious to note that Bach only introduces the tenor as a true soloist towards the conclusion of the entire composition.  We first hear him (Roberto Abate, in this performance) in duet with the soprano.  His melodic line, at this point in the work, seems more utilitarian than florid, so Abate was put at somewhat of a psychological disadvantage as soon as he sang his first notes.  Not surprisingly, therefore, he and Webb didn’t quite ‘knit’ their respective parts into a persuasive duet.  This is unfortunate because both singers have vocal qualities.  They both displayed excellent pitch control and good penetration.  Their duet – ‘Domine Deus’ – is placed at the core of the Gloria’s frame, the central line of its equilibrium, yet Bach uses music from an earlier cantata and does so in a rather matter-of-fact manner.  Whether this, in any way, explains the business-like nature of the tenor’s part, I can’t say.

The bass soloist (Robert Hofmann) was first heard in the ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, the penultimate section of the Gloria.  One was immediately struck by the clarity of his diction (and that’s quite a rare compliment to pay a singer).  In purely musical terms, he showed an evenness of timbre throughout his range, a most desirable quality in sacred vocal music, although his penetration could have more incisive.  Also, while his pitch accuracy is to be commended, he projects the notes with a little more breath than they warrant.  The horn (corno da caccia) was deftly handled in this rendition and formed a nice discourse with the bass voice.

The ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, which closes the Gloria, yielded some good details in the choral parts.  As a unity, they functioned with greater accord here and the two soprano lines (remembering Bach ‘splits’ the choir into four, five, six or eight parts at various stages throughout the work) touched their high notes with pleasing precision and just the correct degree of force.  But elsewhere there were problems afoot.

One always hesitates before mentioning troubling features within the male vocal parts because, quite frankly, good tenors and basses are far from aplenty.  The UWA Coral Society’s male singers are, generally, proficient and very effusive.  They form the bedrock of the harmony and they do this well.  Notwithstanding, several times during their performance they showed a lack of precision or definition in terms of rhythm.  In the first item of the Credo, for example, they were noticeably lacking internal cohesion.

This was to an extent that one could have sworn some of their numbers had been caught off-guard.  In other words, some appeared to enter correctly and some didn’t.  Fortunately the sound settled with better rhythmic bonding as the second half progressed but the seeds of uncertainty had been sown.

A great deal depends on the register of the first note of entry: the higher the entry, the more likely problems will ensue in the tenors (who have an almost universal tendency to ‘fudge’ pitches in their higher register anyway).  And although it wasn’t substantially manifest in the ‘Et incarnatus est’, both tenors and altos were tentative in their entry and unfolding.  With everything having its equal and opposite, the male vocal parts were beautifully negotiated in the ‘Confiteor’ (Confess).  It’s in sections where everything seems secure that one is reminded of those areas where they were not…and to question why there’s a difference.

The only other word of caution one could offer the choir, after hearing its performance of the ‘Sanctus” and ’Hosanna’, both of which are swift-footed, is to not overexpose the beat.  In the ‘Hosanna’ there are relatively long passages based on single syllables so the natural inflection of words can’t be used as a steadying factor.  But in their effort to sustain the beat the choir strongly accented the first of every bar and the music lost its fluency at a time when it most needed it.  I’m not sure what Burhan Guner could have done, or even if there is such a gesture in the ‘conductors’ manual’, to reduce the accentuation of the beat.  I suppose the best any conductor can do is to remind the choir beforehand: “Think but don’t accent the beat, unless notated”.

Roberto Abate, nicely accompanied by flute obligato, was finally heard to full advantage in the ‘Benedictus’ and he rewarded our waiting with a performance which displayed a good sense of dynamic shaping, well controlled breathing, and a most pleasing and accurate sense of pitch.  In fact, all the soloists, at various points during the performance, brought these same qualities into focus. 

The closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ uses the same music as the ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ from the Gloria (which is itself a remodelling of music taken from an earlier cantata).  The tempo here, though, is one of majesty and brilliance.  In its performance, the choir, very much to Guner’s credit, mirrored this beautifully.  It brought to a conclusion a most interesting and valorous account of one of the most challenging works of the repertoire.

NB. It would have given me much pleasure to mention the names of key instrumentalists, who presented their parts with poise and excellent baroque style, but having been denied a program booklet, despite asking twice, makes that impossible.


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