In 1733 Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a two movement, multi-section Missa Brevis as a failed job audition at the royal Saxon court in Dresden. Fourteen years later, he borrowed movements from other earlier works to fill out what we now know as the Mass in B Minor. The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, plus a starry line-up of soloists, took on this monument of western civilization this weekend in their performance of Bach's Mass. Music director Franz Welser-Möst led a performance that was notable not for being a full-throated blast, but for its restraint. Much of the choral singing was at the soft end of the dynamic range. The result was that the major climaxes – the Gloria in excelsis and, especially, the Et resurrexit choruses – stood in stark contrast to the often otherwise reined-in choral singing.

Iestyn Davies © Benjamin Ealovega
Iestyn Davies
© Benjamin Ealovega

The Mass in B minor has landmines aplenty and, unfortunately, the usually excellent all-volunteer Cleveland Orchestra Chorus stumbled on one at the very beginning. After the opening choral statement of Kyrie eleison and the extended orchestral prelude, a seeming miscue caused the tenors to miss their entrance. Welser-Möst let things go on for a few more bars, but when it became clear that the damage was not going to heal itself, he took the only real option: he stopped the music and began again after a pause to let the audience's ears reset themselves. There were no major mishaps after that. The chorus, trained by Robert Porco, met the challenges both of the difficulty of the music itself, as well as Wesler-Möst's insistence on piano and pianissimo choral singing in much of the work. One can understand the desire for clarity and agility of choral sound to manage the complexity of Bach's counterpoint; but at times, especially in the passages sung by a semi-chorus, the choral tone was wispy and fragile-sounding (particularly in the et in terra pax section of the Gloria), robbing the sound of its "presence" and ability to balance against the orchestra.

Welser-Möst’s tempi were at times leisurely; others were brisk with a sense of urgency, but not rushed. The work was performed without intermission; in between the major sections there were significant pauses. The progress was inexorable until the final thrilling climax of the Dona nobis pacem, in which the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was joined by the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus, singing from both sides of the dress circle section of the balcony. Despite being far away from the orchestra and main chorus, the young people were precisely together and sang with impeccable tone and blend.

Of the four soloists, only tenor Nicholas Phan had sung with the Cleveland Orchestra before. American soprano Joélle Harvey, British countertenor Iestyn Davies, and German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann were all making their debuts. It is hard to imagine a better quartet for this performance; each was superb. Phan especially caught the devotion of the text in his reading of the Benedictus, which was one of the highlights of the evening. Encountering Iestyn Davies in live performance for the first time was a revelation; his voice is richly powerful through a wide range, expressive in his use of tonal color and vibrato, with an unerring sense of fluid line and phrasing. He was well-matched in his duet with soprano Joélle Harvey, Domine Deus, Rex coelestis, in their blending of the overlapping polyphony and the many harmonic suspensions in Bach’s music. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was impressive in his aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus (with Cleveland Orchestra principal horn Richard King’s gorgeous obbligato).

It would be remiss not to mention the stellar playing of the orchestra’s other obbligato soloists: Frank Rosenwein and Robert Walters, oboe d’amore; concertmaster William Preucil; Joshua Smith, flute; Michael Sachs, Jack Sutte, and Michael Miller, trumpet. Joela Jones and Mark Kosower provided strong continuo support on organ and cello, respectively.

After the last cut-off of the concluding Dona nobis pacem, Franz Welser-Möst froze the assembled forces for a lengthy reflective silence before the cheering and ovations began.

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