Performances in the UK of Bach’s Lutheran masses are relatively rare occurrences, rarer still are those given by just one voice per part with similarly paired-down instrumental support. Two masses (G minor and G major) formed the lion’s share of an all-Bach programme presented by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and directed from the harpsichord by John Butt.

It’s now approaching 40 years since Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott first experimented with chamber forces in Bach’s choral work – and whilst the notion of solo voices doing double duty has attracted some admirers (regardless of any likely authenticity) the practice is too restrictive for wholesale development. In these fast-paced accounts Butt gave us ample reason to admire these two works and made a persuasive case for their rendition by solo voices. (Interestingly, the F major and A major masses have still to receive a performance at the Proms.)

John Butt © David Barbour
John Butt
© David Barbour
Entitled “Bach, Secular and Sacred” the programme began, however, with the Sinfonia to the Cantata BWV42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbaths (“On the evening of the Sabbath Day”) – a da capo-style prelude that makes an effective stand-alone item. The players clearly enjoyed themselves and made the most of their alternating wind and string sonorities.

There followed Bach’s Mass in G minor (BWV235) – which comprises only the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Mass – and, like its three companion works, borrows material from cantatas written during his Leipzig years. Inevitably, there is some degree of compromise in the word setting, but in the extended Kyrie the four soloists admirably handled its varied and demanding vocal writing. On occasion one might have preferred a less unvarying dynamic from the singers, but their intonation was impeccable and their phrasing, while sometimes quite individual, was always musically intelligent. As soloists they each inhabited their own distinctive identity: Edward Grint (baritone) was imposing, Thomas Hobbs (tenor) provided warmth and Meg Bragle (mezzo) combined these qualities with an additional lustre that was totally engaging. Soprano Mary Bevan carried the top line of the choruses with much beauty of tone. As ever, the OAE were marvellously supportive, and momentum was sustained throughout by Butt’s invigorating tempi.

After the interval four players from the OAE took the limelight in Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 – a work written some 20 odd years before the four Lutheran Masses. Its first movement opened up a fascinating window on instrumental timbre, where David Blackadder (trumpet) was outstanding and who made light of its stratospheric tessitura. It was in the central trio where Pamela Thorby (recorder), Daniel Lanthier (oboe) and Matthew Truscott (violin) made a lasting impression. Their shared intimacy was almost tangible and brought to mind the atmosphere of a congenial dinner party where everyone contributes equally to its wit and sparkle. Everything here just clicked into place.

Something of this intensity seemed to rub off in the performance of the Mass in G major BWV236. The Gloria virtually became a dance, so spirited was this account and so effortlessly natural was Butt’s choice of tempo. Added to which Bevan and Bragle formed a stunning partnership here and again later in their duet Domine Deus. Butt conveyed Bach’s dancing rhythms superbly in the concluding Cum Sancto spirito. If there is ever an advocate for these masses, this performance made clear it is John Butt and the OAE.