J. S. Bach wrote hundreds of liturgical choral works, most of them with a strict deadline – the forthcoming Sunday morning church service. Yet the composition (some would argue, the compilation) of the Mass in B minor BWV232 occupied him for many years, despite the composer being fully aware of the fact that this immense Catholic work was unserviceable and impractical in the overwhelmingly Lutheran community of Leipzig. To this day, Bach’s crowning achievement is seldom performed due to its monumental length (taking 1¾ hours in most modern performances) and its demanding instrumental and vocal solos. It was only in the last years of his life that Bach gradually “assembled” the Mass by mostly recycling carefully chosen, previously composed choral music with new text – this compositional tool, called the parody technique, was both acceptable and common at the time.

The Song Company © Peter Hislop
The Song Company
© Peter Hislop

“The B Minor Mass”, as it is customarily referred to (without even the need to mention the composer’s name) has in the past been considered to be a powerful and grave work best performed with a voluminous choir and orchestra, lasting on the venerable old recordings of Karajan, Karl Richter and others a good half hour longer. Then in the early 1980s, the American conductor and scholar, Joshua Rifkin made the suggestion in his writings and concerts that in Bach’s time, the word “chorus” meant a collection of solo singers who were employed to sing solo and choral roles without distinction, and therefore the Mass (and other choral works) could be performed with minimal forces. The ensuing professional debate was intense but once that subsided, a number of conductors took up the idea and started experimenting with a smaller vocal ensemble and an orchestra matching in size. The performing style also changed by becoming historically better informed with performances advancing less ponderous tempi, and the transformation was startling: the Mass became a shorter, leaner and perhaps less mighty composition – yet its sublime spirituality remained intact. Almost as if the emphasis would shift from the ominously superior, white-bearded, fully clothed God to the muscular but naked, pleading but sinful Adam (look up in the Sistine Chapel!)

In Sydney last Sunday, prominent vocal ensemble The Song Company expanded its core membership and partnered with Ironwood (another local group, known for specialising in historically informed performance of the music of the 18th and 19th century) for this concert; it may well have been the first performance of the Mass in Australia with only ten singers and a grand total of 22 instrumentalists (some of them required only for a few numbers).

The concentration and focus of these musicians was palpable right from the first utterance of Kyrie. They were conducted by the Musical Director of The Song Company, Roland Peelman, whose languid, expressive body language rarely indicated beats or entries in the traditional sense – nor it seemed was there any need for it, for that matter – but controlled the flow of the music, refining the articulation constantly. His bent knees, continuously moving long fingers appeared almost to take part in some sacral dance, rather than conducting – and indeed, the dance-like movements, such as the Osanna or the triumphant Et resurrexit, provided some of the most compelling and joyous moments of the concert.

The singers sang two to a part in most choral numbers, with clear diction and solid intonation. Balance was almost never a problem, as long as the audience was prepared to listen with open ears and open heart. Clearly, such an approach entails certain risks: in ensembles of this size, most performers become soloists, their exposure to glory or potential fiasco far greater than members of an ordinary choir or orchestra would ever be exposed to. If indeed, solo singers constitute the “chorus”, they cannot rest anymore during the choral numbers but sing throughout the whole work. This did take its toll towards the end of the work occasionally, on the other hand, hearing single voices earlier in the Credo in unum Deum was a courageous but refreshingly new experience.

Ironwood also had to boost its numbers for this performance. As with the singers, it successfully blended the enthusiasm of some younger players with the experience of its regular members. The result was mostly reassuringly positive: tempi were always kept fresh and the almost complete lack of vibrato created a special quality rather than causing uncomfortable dryness in the sound. The excellent continuo group propelled the performance gently but consistently, and the use of original instruments and historical performing techniques only occasionally felt less than an advantage – possible improvements could be sought in the pitch and ensemble of the violin obbligato of the Christe eleison or the sound quality of the bassoons in Quoniam tu solus sanctus. The vocal and instrumental solos were universally well controlled and movingly beautiful, with Tobias Cole’s first aria with Emma Black’s oboe d’amore obbligato (Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris) an exquisite highlight among them.