Living in New York, I was looking forward to attending for the first time a concert featuring Bach’s orchestral music in the famed Boston Symphony Hall, arguably the best acoustic environment in the United States. Knowing that the program would be devoted to the Mass in B minor, a towering expression of human creativity, just made me even more eager to attend a rare event, as the Boston Symphony Orchestra has not scheduled this magnus opus since 2001.

Andris Nelsons leads the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soloists and Boston Symphony © Winslow Townson
Andris Nelsons leads the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soloists and Boston Symphony
© Winslow Townson

Starting with a modern instrument orchestra and a chorus of more than a hundred singers are not necessarily favorable circumstances for a clear and nimble interpretation of Bach’s divine music. It was, though, an extraordinary performance. The orchestra, the number of instrumentalists only slightly reduced, played with restraint, producing a homogenous, glowing sound perfectly integrated with the chorus in such numbers as Et incarnatus est and the immediately following Crucifixus. The dynamics were wonderfully calibrated so that the contrapunctal tessitura was always easy to follow.

Andris Nelsons, conducting the work for the first time, brought unity to an opus with 27 segments composed throughout Bach’s career, representing a summation of his technical, stylistic and harmonic innovations. The conductor paid special attention to the relationships between juxtaposing movements, carefully planning the emergence of the sublime opening of the Qui tollis peccata mundi from the slow, dying finale of the Domine Deus, the flute sound providing an element of continuity. In the same vein, Nelsons underlined the contrast between Pleni sunt coeli, with its lilting dance rhythm, and the following severe Osanna. More than anything else, he constantly kept a sense of the work’s tremendous gravitas.

Nelsons assembled a fine roster of soloists for these performances. The most effective was mezzo-soprano Christine Rice whose dark-hued tone was especially inspiring in the Agnus Dei. In several duets – Christe Eleison, Et in unum Dominum with soprano Malin Christensson, she provided a wonderful counterbalance to the latter’s light, silvery voice. There were several true inter pares dialogues between singers and instrumentalists. Rice conversed with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe in Laudamus te. The clear and precise Domine Deus duet featuring Christensson and tenor Benjamin Bruns was sustained with tenacious grace by principal flute Elizabeth Rowe. Avoiding any rubato, the same wonderful player also spun an exquisite web of sounds around Benjamin Bruns’ articulated and elegant phrasing in Benedictus. The voice of bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann, expressive but a little wobbly in Et in Spiritum sanctum, combined well with the warm sound of the horn played by Richard Sebring in Quoniam tu solus.

The Mass in B minor is first and foremost a choral work. Singing in most of the movements, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by its new director, James Burton, was stupendous. From the initial Kyrie to the final Dona nobis pacem, the Latin words were uttered with clarity, every entrance was precise, the complex balances between multiple voices were well maintained. If the projected sound had at times a Brahmsian, massive quality, it was just due to the sheer number of choristers.

The strong, several decades old movement towards playing Baroque music on period instruments has had one infelicitous side effect: modern instruments orchestras are reluctant to schedule Bach’s music in their programs, “afraid” that their interpretation would be easily labelled as “inauthentic”. Bach’s choral works, the hundreds of cantatas, each and one of them a real gem, are almost never interpreted outside their liturgical context. Regardless of “appropriate” tempi and timbres, the music is so powerful, so essential to this art’s evolution that it must be truly omnipresent on concert stages everywhere.