The Mass in B minor was completed in 1749, the year before Bach’s death. Much of the work consists of music Bach composed much earlier in his life (the Kyrie and Gloria from one of the Lutheran Masses). The sections he added latter were among the last things he wrote before he died. It is strange for a composer as steeped in the Lutheran tradition as Bach to compose a Latin Mass setting and to this day it is a mystery as to why he even composed the work although theories vary from a secret commission from a Catholic nobleman to Bach consciously creating a summation of his whole musical career. Regardless, the Mass in B minor is surely amongst the most complex and difficult pieces of music ever written, and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and their collaborators did full justice to it in a revelatory performance.

Stephen Layton © Keith Saunders
Stephen Layton
© Keith Saunders

Conductor Stephen Layton is well known as the director of Polyphony and has won multiple Gramophone and other awards. His tempo choices were very fast throughout. This added to the exhilaration and excitement of key moments like the opening of the Gloria and the Cum Sancto Spiritu, though the choir did almost threaten to be left behind at the opening of the former. The concluding Dona nobis pacem could have been a little slower and more inward but overall the work was well paced and, importantly, conceived in a grand arc that gave surety to the whole.

What was most remarkable was the ability of the choir not only to sing accurately at these speeds, but also to imbue each successive movement with appropriate feeling. This ranged from ecstatic joy and buoyancy in the Gloria and Sanctus to an ethereal wonder-filled Et incarnates est. Not a terribly large group, the University of Auckland Chamber Choir sang with adequate volume but also with admirable precision. The sopranos sounded like a gorgeous halo above the rest of the choir whenever they reached the Gs and As at the top of the stave. Particularly ravishing were the long phrases in the Et in terra pax. The Sanctus rose to a sumptuous and impassioned climax, superbly anchored by the basses in their step-like downward phrases. The Osanna was the most thrilling performance of this movement I’ve ever heard, clarion sopranos combining with timpani and brass to exciting effect. The most gorgeous, hushed pianissimo ended the Crucifixus movement, providing an electrifying contrast with the following Et resurrexit. This was a superlative performance from a young choir.

The orchestra were on great form throughout. Cut down to chamber size for this performance, they played at modern pitch on modern instruments but with an acute grasp of Baroque performance style – historically-informed performance on modern instruments, if you will. Bach will usually pair his solo singers with particular instruments (for example, solo violin in the Laudamus te) and the Auckland Philharmonia’s instrumentalists played without exception with breathtaking virtuosity and also a keen grasp of Bachian style. Special credit should be given to flautist Catherine Bowie for her sense of line and phrasing in the Domine Deus and Benedictus. The brass section were magnificent too, trio of trumpets scaling the heights in the Gloria and Cum Sanctu Spirito with astonishing accuracy and verve.

Australian soprano Sara Macliver has a ravishing tone and supreme command over Bach’s technical demands. I’ve admired her in the past in repertoire as diverse as Faure and Mozart, and she certainly didn’t disappoint here, making the coloratura demands of the Laudamus te seem easy and singing sensitively in her duets. Kate Spence, despite a slight rasp in the voice (the sign of a cold, perhaps?), outdid herself in the Agnus Dei, offering deeply felt singing and beautifully sculpted phrasing without any self-conscious overinterpretation. She also coped well with the awkward word-setting. Accompanied by tender strings, this was simple, expressive Bach singing at its best. Her earlier Qui sedes solo had some wonderfully sweet oboe playing from Peter Facer.

Best of all the soloists was tenor James Oxley. Despite the punishingly high tessitura, he delivered a Benedictus both attractively plangent and effortlessly accurate. He joined Macliver for a most beautiful rendition of the Domine Deus duet, pure voices blending exquisitely. The only sour note was the performance of the solo bass, woolly of tone and unsure of pitch. However, the accompanying horn playing in the Quoniam was so spectacular (with wonderful byplay with the bassoons) that one almost didn’t even notice his vocal troubles.

But I wouldn’t want to end on a negative note, because for long stretches, it was difficult to imagine a more moving and memorable performance of Bach’s masterpiece. The Auckland Philharmonia succeeded completely in creating the deeply emotional out of the spiritual and for this I congratulate them. A Christmas Oratorio from the same forces is on my wish-list for future seasons.

*****