We take it for granted that Bach’s Mass in B-Minor is one of the great mountains of artistic achievement. But the thing with mountains is that you can be deceived into thinking of them as solid unchanging rock, when in fact they’re never quite the same on each ascent; and we should not be surprised if the ground slips underfoot, if a diversion is needed to reach the summit, or if the view from the top is not quite what we expected. In the case of this evening’s route up Mount B Minor, with our guides Paul McCreesh and Royal Northern Sinfonia, the path was not always familiar, we approached the landmarks along the way from different directions and at times we scrambled up at dangerously fast speeds.

Paul McCreesh © Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian | Shaun Bloodworth
Paul McCreesh
© Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian | Shaun Bloodworth

The Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia were augmented this evening by young singers from Quay Voices, Sage Gateshead’s youth choir, a group who match the adults for accurate, disciplined singing. The soprano section in particular took on a whole new sheen with the addition of the younger voices, and hearing a choir of over eighty singers that was capable of responding to Paul McCreesh’s blatant disregard for any speed limit was very exciting, particularly in the Cum Sancto Spiritu and the Et expecto resurrectionem movements. At other times, slightly faster than normal speeds than you would normally expect from a choir of this size brought out the dances that underpin so much of Bach’s music. The Sanctus, which I often find a bit ponderous, skipped along in a merry jig, taking delight in the words “holy, holy, holy" rather than being awestruck.

What troubled me though was Paul McCreesh’s use of the soloists for some of the chorus passages. I understand that there are very sound musicological arguments based around the way these passages are scored, and it’s not as if I’m not used to this approach, as my own favourite recording does the same, but in a live performance with a big chorus, it often felt wrong, for several different reasons. Firstly some of the passages sung by the soloists sound simply amazing when sung by a really good chorus – I would have liked to hear all the basses powering through et iterum venturus est, and in the Cum Sancto Spiritu breaking off the chorus for a quintet passage interrupted the excitement and momentum . The other problem is that some of these passages come at points in the mass that feel as if they should be a collective expression of profound faith: the Qui tollis peccata mundi and the crucial Confiteor unum baptisma lost that dimension when taken down to solo voices. That said, the quintet blended beautifully, and on a practical level, using one-per part passages makes it easy to create bigger contrasts, such as the explosion into Et resurrexit.

Some of the best music of the evening came from the solo arias and duets. Soprano Sophie Junker’s happy clarity was a good pairing with Kitty Whately’s richer voice in the Christe eleison, and in all her duets she responded sensitively to her partner. Although bass Alexander Robin Baker was a bit harsh in the Quonium, he seemed more comfortable in the higher register of Et in Spiritum Sanctum, with a much smoother, silkier line of sound. Some conductors focus too much on either just the singers, or just the instruments, but Paul McCreesh gave equal attention to every musician, drawing out some wonderful performances: Kyra Humphreys’s graceful violin solo with Kitty Whately’s joyful Laudamus te; the light and space between the notes of flautist Juliette Bausor for the Dominne Deus; equal expressive depth from mezzo Anna Harvey and oboist Steven Hudson in a sublime Qui sedes; and under another fluid flute solo from Juliette Bausor in the Benedictus, the sob of Andrew Skidmore’s cello line was a reminder that the triumph of Palm Sunday recalled in the text is not far away from the suffering of Good Friday But if there’s one instrument that’s absolutely crucial to the B Minor Mass, the part that can make or break a performance, it’s the trumpets, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia trio were as heroic as ever, shining their golden light on the most glorious bits of Bach’s music.

In the last pause for reflection before the summit, Anna Harvey and the Royal Northern Sinfonia violins, so tightly knit that they sounded like a single solo line, gave us an astoundingly moving and tender Agnus Dei, weighed down with all the grief and tears of a sinful world. A quick Dona Nobis Pacem pushed us onwards to the peak, rather too abruptly though, as I would have liked to linger a little longer to take in the majestic view from in that place of contemplation.