One could surmise any number of reasons why the Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t performed Bach’s Mass in B minor in over thirty years. (Their last traversal was in 1985, with Muti conducting.) First and foremost, this group is about as far from a period ensemble as you can get and neither of its institutional homes (Academy of Music then, Verizon Hall now) scream church-like intimacy. The work also requires a large, first-rate chorus and at least four world-class singers. Above all, it needs a protean leader to pull all these elements together and deliver a singular vision. How often can we expect all these puzzle pieces to converge at once?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

In returning the mass to the orchestra’s repertoire, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led an admirable reading of the score that nonetheless failed to clear the many hurdles Bach put in place. The slimmed-down instrumental ensemble made the strongest impression, offering a sense of historically informed performance while working with the realities of a modern orchestra. The violins were crisp but not overly blended, leaving richness and resplendence to the low strings. The brass section sounded appropriately exultant.

So too did the Westminster Symphonic Choir, especially in jubilant chorales like Gloria, Et resurrexit and Osanna in excelsis. Still, the mournful, laudatory sections could have benefited from a bit more introspection, and the contrasting Kyrie choruses that open the piece sounded overly similar. The lower voices could have used a bit more heft, and the entire choir could stand a touch more bite.

Even when individual sections were working at their level best, Nézet-Séguin never fully unified the choruses, vocal soloists and musical interludes into a cohesive whole. If he had an overarching idea about the music, it remained elusive. The overall impression was one of politeness – it lacked the spiritual rejuvenation of a holiday mass and the desperate reckoning of a funeral rite.

Among the soloists, Carolyn Sampson’s lithe, golden-threaded soprano ideally suited the Baroque style, though I prefer a weightier sound in the Laudamus te. Jonas Hacker’s baritonal tenor had an attractive core and he freely moved toward the high attacks in Domine Deus. Karen Cargill kept her tidal wave of a mezzo in check for much of the performance; it’s a blue-chip instrument, no doubt, but I longed for greater expressiveness in Agnus Dei. Benjamin Appl's overall tone was pallid and unpleasant; in Quoniam tu solus sanctus, he was shaking his throat and adding breaths to approximate a melismatic run.

Nézet-Séguin has expressed his great love for the Mass in B minor, and it's likely that this always introspective musician will return to the work again, with fresh insights. I doubt we’ll need to wait thirty years this time.