John Butt has made his name directing exquisitely nimble, small-scale performances of Baroque choral masterpieces with his award-winning Dunedin Consort, so it was something of a surprise to find him attempting to bring his period-performance experience to bear on the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its huge Chorus in one of the great monuments of western art, Bach’s Mass in B minor. Would it work? Well...

Mary Bevan © BBC | Mark Allan
Mary Bevan
© BBC | Mark Allan

Things did not look promising when the opening Kyrie crawled into life, its leaden tempo so slow and careful that all the air fell out of it after just a few bars, despite the luxurious support of plentiful strings and woodwind. One feared it was going to be a long night, but things improved immediately with the sprightly soprano duet Christe eleison, elegantly despatched by Joanne Lunn and Mary Bevan, both on radiant form.

The long haul through the Gloria began promisingly, with Butt really swinging the opening 3/8 time signature, but the tenors struggled to hit those taxing top notes in the Et in terra pax section, their long runs of semiquavers already sounding tired and increasingly flat. Again, Mary Bevan came to the rescue, duetting so winningly with the orchestra’s leader Igor Yuzefovich in Laudamus te, though it lies right at the bottom of her register.

The chorus was on safer ground in the stately Gratia agimus tibi movement (reprised later as the closing Donna nobis pacem). Here the sound was full, rich and inspiring, an impressive example of what these singers can do on a good day, but then it is easier for such large forces to move as one when the tempi is magisterial, quite another when the heat is on.

Lunn’s sweet and pure soprano matched Samuel Boden’s lithe and graceful tenor in their Domine deus duet, a moment of serene reflection quickly dispelled by a muddy and unfocused Qui tollis from the chorus. Counter tenor Alex Potter restored equilibrium with a stunningly good Qui sedes ad dexteram, his voice strong without being strident, clean and unshowy, warm and sincere.

John Butt, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
John Butt, the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

The ever-reliable bass Edward Grint replied with a solid, but rather colourless Quoniam tu solos sanctus, before the chorus took off like a rocket with Cum sancto spiritu, only to slide in pitch as the fugue took hold.

There were more tuning problems in the Credo and the Et incarnatus est, but the low-lying Crucifixus fared better, with some nice, purposeful phrasing and good diction (a feature of most of the evening). It took until the Sanctus for the chorus to sound really settled, although even here the exposed fugal entries at Pleni sunt coeli were a strain to keep in tune. The Osannas, on the other hand, were suitably joyful and exciting, framing a lovely, plangent Benedictus from Boden and preparing the way for a perfectly poised Agnus Dei from Potter.

Throughout the evening there were some nicely handled obbligatos from soloists within the orchestra, and it was refreshing to hear them on sleek, modern instruments – no authentic woofly flutes or wobbly horns here – and yet this will not go down as a memorable Mass in B minor. Such a large body of singers simply cannot produce the fleetness of foot necessary for this exacting music, nor could John Butt, with all his experience, do much to improve matters – a shame in what should have been a highlight of the BBC Symphony Chorus’s 90th year celebrations.