There are multiple ways of approaching Bach’s Mass in B minor, a work scholars have called it the “summa” of his vocal writing: from the one-to-a-part originally advocated by Joshua Rifkin (which Solomon's Knot has recently taken it to another level with a conductor-less, conversational approach), to a more conventional large choral approach. In between, there are the period-instrument groups like John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir or Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan which perform it with a small distinguished vocal ensemble with the soloists stepping out from within the choir.

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent
© Rudy Carlier

Philippe Herreweghe’s approach to this work with his trusted Collegium Vocale Gent, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary next year, is – in terms of size and formation – roughly the same as Gardiner or Suzuki: i.e. three or four singers to a part (or two when the work becomes eight parts in the Sanctus), and 24 instrumental players, including the continuo. On the stage of the Barbican, the musicians sat in three rows of semi-circles around Herreweghe. By sitting this way, there was a lot of eye contact between the players and also between the singers, giving an intimate, chamber music feel to the performance. From the outset, it was quite clear that the musicians, especially the singers, didn’t try to project or force their voices to the back of the hall, but rather carefully created their unique sound world on the stage and invited the audience to share this moment with them.

Indeed, I would say that what separates Herreweghe’s approach from other early music groups is his absolute commitment to the quality of sound, above all the purity of sound. He has an ideal sonority for this music in his mind and has gathered the singers and players that can implement this. Rather than blending different-type voices as in most choirs, Herreweghe prefers homogeneity of sound, a pure, focused and transparent sound with minimum vibrato, liberating Bach from the weighty German choral tradition. At times, it can sound a little restrained or too tidy, but the clarity of text and texture is astonishing.

The other feature of his performance was that he performed the Mass as one continuous whole: 120 minutes no interval, pausing only briefly for re-tuning and seating change for the chorus. As is well known, Bach compiled the Mass late in life taking music from different periods of his life, so the stylistic differences can sound quite jarring. But Herreweghe managed to bring some kind of unity through his homogenous sound approach.

The group immediately set the tone with the opening Kyrie, the chorus singing with a focused yet transparent tone. In the fugal section, Bach’s theme is quite jagged with leaps, but both the chorus and the instrumentalists achieved an astonishing sense of line while still bringing out Bach’s detailed articulations. In fact the chorus hardly put a foot wrong all evening: they were poised and controlled and in the few moments when the tension floundered a little, Herreweghe would take a step towards them to re-instil energy. Perhaps the Gloria could have been a little more joyous, but the sequence from Et incarnatus est to Et resurrexit was handled smoothly and subtly, and the Sanctus was elegant and almost dance-like.

The five soloists were an international bunch – German, Czech, Croat and two Brits – many of them long-standing members of the group (in fact, three of them also took solos last time they performed this work in London in 2011). The two sopranos, Dorothée Mields and Hana Blažíková, have different timbres but Mields’ airy, floating voice and a slightly darker timbre of Blažíková soared together in perfect harmony in the Christe. In Domine Deus with flute obligato (Patrick Beuckels), Blažíková was joined by British tenor Thomas Hobbs, here on fine form, and the three lines blended beautifully with chamber-like intimacy. More surprisingly, Quoniam, the famous bass aria with obligato horn, was also treated like chamber music (here sung by Krešimir Stražanac). The horn soloist (Bart Cypers) stood next to the bassoons and demonstrated that the aria was accompanied by a lively trio rather than just horn. Stražanac’s other aria, Et in Spriritum, was accompanied most eloquently by the oboe d’amore duo of Marcel Ponseele and Taka Kitazato. Of the five vocal soloists, countertenor Alex Potter brought his emotions to the fore most strongly with his warm, seductive tone in both Qui sedes and Agnus Dei.

Herreweghe’s Mass in B minor is possibly the purest interpretation around today. He doesn’t do monumental nor dramatic, but the audience was enraptured in his lyrical and gentle sound world. I missed a little more earthiness, a little more gravity at times, but this is simply a matter of taste, and the unity and perfection the group achieved in this complex work was admirable.