REVIEW: American Classical Orchestra and Chorus - Bach's B-minor Mass (NYC, Nov. 15, 2014)
The sublime original-instrument performance of J.S. Bach's B-minor Mass by the American Classical Orchestra and Chorus last Saturday night at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall reminded me that a capacity for new revelations is one of the things that make great music great.
Taken as a whole, the Mass in B minor is one of the Western musical canon's supreme works. Iconic, beautiful, and familiar, available on dozens of different recordings, it is no doubt being performed this holiday season in numerous concert halls around the world. But Thomas Crawford and the American Classical Orchestra, American Classical Orchestra Chorus, and five stellar soloists crafted an original-instrument performance that truly expanded my horizons.
The impressive particulars included an especially strong alto section, noticeable from the very first "Kyrie eleison." Whether the male-heaviness (three men, two women) of this particular alto section had anything to do with its strength, I don't know. And it was just one element of an introductory movement so transporting I found myself wondering how the ensemble would be able to sustain such sonic glory over so many movements to come.
The alto soloist too was male. As David Daniels, one of early music's preeminent countertenors, wove his assured voice tightly with the solo oboe in the "Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris" he evinced a sensitivity of affect as remarkable as his clarity of tone. I've never heard this music sung more beautifully.
The other soloists were just as effective. The two sopranos, Christine Brandes and Kate Maroney, wove their counterpoint in the "Christe eleison" as if they'd been making music together their whole lives. Maroney also sparkled in the fast-moving melody of the "Laudamus te" opposite violin acrobatics from concertmaster Linda Quan, and Brandes's duet with tenor Charles Blandy in the snaking harmonies of the the light-hearted "Domine Deus" accompanied by solo flute conveyed all the exaltation of the text.
At times I almost imagined I heard a pipe organ. But it was the serene, woody sounds of the old-style flutes and oboes d'amore that evoked the church service. Another "original instrument," actually a valveless natural horn newly made by Lowell Greer (of Toledo OH), after original models by early-18th century maker Buchschwinder, made the "Auonium tu solus sanctus" a crowd-pleasing adventure, courtesy of horn player RJ Kelley as he dueted with the flowing, resonant tones of bass Dashon Burton. The triumphant final movement of the Gloria section highlighted the individual sections of the chorus in bright, crisp counterpoint.
After intermission, Brandes and Daniels invested the melodies and counterpoint of the "Et in unum Dominum" with quasi-operatic drama, both voices achieving liquid-crystal tones in the spacious acoustics of Alice Tully Hall, which proved superb for these soloists as well as the ensemble. The slow and thoughtful "Et incarnates est" had all the mystery of the Incarnation. And the titanic "Crucifixus" carried in its chords all the tragedy of the story of the crucifixion, while conveying, perhaps, the not-unrelated impression of a composer in old age. Then the programmatic flavor of the Symbolum Nicenum section continued with the "Et resurrexit" highlighted by the bass voices, a surge of simplified energy.
The next movement exemplified how Bach envisioned the whole work to hold the listener's interest throughout by varying the ensembles as well as the voices. The Mass was never performed in this complete form during Bach's lifetime, but one can still imagine how he pictured the dramatic impression the varied instrumentations and techniques used in its many movements would make. Bass soloist Burton joined a tiny wind ensemble, just two oboes and a bassoon, for the heartfelt statement of belief that is the "Et in Spiritum sanctum Dominum." Burton kept his resonant voice intimate to go with the sparse instrumentation, an impressive feat of balance.
The chorus's well-honed, perfectly in-tune attack marked the "Et expecto" that closed the section. That led into the single-movement Sanctus, the earliest-composed section, in which the female voices evoked the voices of angels and the whole chorus erupted in spectacular, youthful fireworks. Then, in the final section, the winds sounded again like a pipe organ as tenor Blandy sang the "Benedictus." Daniels offered liquid-gold dynamics as the alto melody of the "Agnus Dei" moved between leaps and chromatics, and the chorus and orchestra built to a glorious climax in the closing "Dona nobis pacem."
With a chorus at the top of its game, a superb period-instrument orchestra, and truly world-class soloists, this B-minor Mass was a moving and thrilling reminder of how profoundly beautiful and timeless is Bach's choral music. I felt privileged to be present.© 2016 The Classical Art, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.