The Madrid audience is a lucky one: it gets to see Ton Koopman pleasantly often and, judging from the bursting hall on this Sunday morning concert, the Dutch musician, mainly in a conducting role on this occasion, continues to draw listeners and doesn’t fail to instil enthusiasm. Koopman is hard to resist. His distinctively lively tempi, coupled with a contagious delight to be making music, has a fairly magnetic effect and acts as a good reminder that music is, as well as many other things, a staple for spiritual health.

Ton Koopman © Artists Management Company
Ton Koopman
© Artists Management Company

On the music stands, Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor, arguably the attempt of a Lutheran to perpetuate himself in time by composing the musical pinnacle that a catholic mass had historically been. A concoction of originally composed music and parodies from previous compositions, Bach wrote the Kyrie and the Gloria in 1733, but he only completed the rest of the mass in 1749, a year before his death. He did not seem to have written it for a particular occasion, nor did he not live long to see his work published. Generation after generation of scholars have kept themselves busy figuring out the many mysteries surrounding this unique piece of work.

Koopman invited, nuanced, danced, enticed and encouraged. He was like a wand-less magician, and the musicians facing him fell for the spell. Nicely trimmed for the occasion, the Spanish National Orchestra and Choir made a remarkable job of bringing the mass to life, undoubtedly aware that they were in the hands of one of the most indispensable interpreters of Bach of our time. The mass requires a true team effort, but it also demands absolute commitment from each musician as they are singled out on particular occasions and bear much of the responsibility for the final result. And live up to the expectations they did: we heard fabulous interventions from the oboes, a highlight being the intervention of the principal oboe at Qui sedes at dexteram Patris. The trumpets sounded balanced, bright and spot on throughout. The horn survived a breakneck Quoniam tu solus sanctus with much dignity and with loyal support from the bassoons. There is a lot to saviour in the presence of a motivated orchestra, for motivation too is contagious.

Absolute commitment is also needed from the soloists, even if they all have relatively small roles to sing. Two of them, mezzo-soprano Bogna Bartosz and bass Klaus Mertens, joined Koopman in his titanic quest to undertake a complete recording of the Bach’s cantatas over a decade ago now. Both had an irregular evening, with flat initial solo interventions – in Qui sedes at dexteram Patris and Quoniam tu solus sanctus respectively. However, both did improve; Bartosz offered a delicate Agnus Dei and Mertens built nicely over the simple yet majestic instrumentation of Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum, one of so many examples in Bach where less is more – and the first of a few occasions where we got to listen to Koopman’s fingers on the keyboard. Soprano María Espada also had her strengths and weaknesses, proving a better partner in crime for Bartosz in Christe eleison than in Et in unum Dominum. She was overall correct if not memorable, showing an irksome preference for glottal attacks. Tenor Tilman Lichdi had the shortest intervention yet his voice was by far the most suitable of all soloists for this piece. His Benedictus sounded limpid, elegant and boundless.

The biggest vocal role is, of course, that of the choir, with a leading role right from the beginning – a nicely presented Kyrie eleison where the lively pace made it sound spontaneous and at the same time was detailed enough to ensure each voice was neatly heard at the right time. There really isn’t anything quite like this in history of music. Lord, have mercy on us indeed. The opening of the Gloria in excelsis Deo saw a not insignificant number of heads of the audience dancing along to its vivacious tempo. It was really in the swifter numbers that the choir flourished, and that was made even more evident in the second half of the concert, in particular during the Ossana in excelsis. It suffered from flatness in some moments – the orchestra also faced tuning challenges. The pause to retune before diving into the Credo was very pertinent. This somehow didn’t quite darken the mood, which was one of celebration of and reverence toward magnificence.