I have to confess that when I was a music college student, I wasn’t able to appreciate the greatness of Bach’s Mass in B minor. I loved his Passions, the Magnificat and several of his cantatas but, shamefully, I couldn’t find a way into the heart of the mass. It seemed so cerebral and rigorous with its complex counterpoint and I always felt emotionally distant. It actually took me twenty years until I finally understood it fully. I don’t regret this personal journey, however, as I experienced Solomon’s Knot’s performance in the beautiful decor of the Shoreditch Town Hall on the last day of Spitalfields Winter Festival, I couldn’t help wishing that I'd encountered such a lively and visceral interpretation when I was a student!

Solomon's Knot © James Berry
Solomon's Knot
© James Berry

Solomon’s Knot is a flexible vocal and instrumental group known for their “collective” approach to Baroque repertoire. They seek to apply the principles of chamber music to large-scale works in order to communicate directly with the audience. They perform without a conductor, using smaller forces, with the singers often performing one-to-a-part and from memory. Their performance of the Magnificat in this style had been highly acclaimed at this year’s Bachfest in Leipzig, but the B minor mass is in a different league altogether, so I wasn’t sure what to expect; but it was indeed a revelatory experience – so intense, immediate, and inclusive.

So how do thirty musicians (ten singers and twenty instrumentalists) perform without a conductor? On stage, the singers stand in a row at the front forming a slight arch and the instrumentalists stand behind. They basically adopt the one-voice-to-a-part Joshua Rifkin approach, but with two additional singers; in the choruses they sing either one voice to a part, or at times two/three voices, and the solos are evenly shared out between them. The small-sized orchestra, with two-to-a-part upper strings, plays on period instruments.

It’s quite fascinating to see how organic their music-making is. There is no single leader either in the orchestra or chorus that gives the beat or sets the tempi, although bass Jonathan Sells, the founder of the ensemble, does give the occasional glances or nods to keep things together or to move things along. In the choral numbers that begin in unison, they seemed to start together quite spontaneously, and in the arias, they would perform as naturally as if it is chamber music. Throughout there was lots of eye-contact, along with smiles and looks of encouragement between the singers, and also between the singer and the solo instrumentalist in the arias (e.g. wonderful interplay between bass Alex Ashworth and horn player Anneke Scott in the Quonium, who performed side by side). And even when they are not performing themselves, the musicians would watch and encourage their colleagues. All in all, there was a wonderful sense of community which we the audience also shared.

It was also fascinating how the chorus changed their formations according to whether the movement was in four, five, six or eight parts. For example, in the double chorus in Osanna, you could both clearly hear and watch the two choirs in dialogue. Also, the use of single voices in fugal entries was effective in highlighting Bach’s counterpoint. Other favourite moments in the choral numbers included the utterly joyous and irresistibly swingy Cum sancto spiritu as well as the emotionally intense sequence of Et incarnatus est/Crucifixus/Et resurrexit. Often there was a strong sense of dance rhythms which was infectious and I found it difficult to sit still!

The arias felt integrated into the choral numbers, and one felt a more personal connection to them because they were sung from within the group. Many of the solos were memorable although I won’t single anyone out because in such a collective performance, it actually feels inappropriate to do so. There was impressive obbligato solo playing (beautiful unison playing by two flutes in Domine Deus, the delightful oboe d’amore duet in Et in Spiritum sanctum, with ornamentation). Also, the trio of natural trumpets and the timpani were outstanding.

And the issue of “singing from memory”? Of course, it must be a monumental task to memorise the whole work, but in reality, after a few minutes it ceased to matter. It was clear that the group was not doing it for the sake of it, but in order to communicate directly with the audience and to that end I was totally convinced. What mattered more was that their musical impetus came not from a single conductor but from within each musician, and that was what made this performance so memorable and deeply moving. I’m not sure I want to go back to the conventional conductor-led Bach performances any time soon.