To bring the year-long, spectacularly wide-ranging Bach Unwrapped series to a close, Kings Place programmed J S Bach's opus ultimum, the Mass in B Minor. The Aurora Orchestra, together with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and five soloists, brought much liveliness to the performance, though for a number of reasons it was not the series' finest hour.

© Maximilian Baillie
© Maximilian Baillie

Although regarded as one of Bach's finest compositions, the Mass in B Minor is a curious one; it is a set of compositions more than a single entity. It began with the Sanctus, written for Christmas 1724 as a distinct piece. There then followed a 'Missa' – comprising the Kyrie and the Gloria – written in the early 1730s in the hope that Bach would persuade the new Elector, Friedrich August II, to grant him a title at the Dresden court. It was not until the late 1740s that Bach compiled these and composed further movements in order to expand what he had into the work we know as the Mass in B Minor. In it, we see Bach's virtuosity in all its guises: fugal writing, lavish counterpoint, sumptuous homophony, composition over a cantus firmus, and parody (or even simply recycling music), to mention a few. It is stylistically enormously diverse, ranging from the stile antico of the 'Confiteor' section of the Symbolum Nicenum to sections which, by virtue of their emotional stirrings (the heart-wrenchingly gorgeous sequence of suspensions in the Sanctus, and the sense of quiet awe and fear created by the 'Et incarnatus est' spring to mind), seem to dip their toe into the Romantic. 

It is a pity that the gamut of emotions was not fully brought out in this performance. Conductor Nicholas Collon took most of the first half, and some of the second half of the performance at a rather fast pace, which meant that the orchestral ensemble dropped on occasion (though on the whole it was very good), and every now and again it seemed as though there was a fight to spit the words or music out at the expense of realising the sensibilities of the work. On the other hand, the choice of tempi served to display the impressive technical ability of the Choir of Clare College, which managed en masse to stay on top of the diction in the 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' of the Gloria and the fast-moving melismatic passages of the 'Et resurrexit' section of the Credo. The overall sound was a clear one (just occasionally I detected a vibrato in the front row that didn't quite blend). The Choir had very obviously been well rehearsed, producing a polished and, above all, eminently musical performance. As if it needed saying again, their reputation as one of the finest mixed choirs in the country was plain to see.

The soloists proved a mixed bag, and regrettably there was some pyrite amongst the real gold. Malin Christensson seemed nervous (if ever-smiling) and under-prepared; hers was a quiet performance, and not as assured as it might have been. Indeed, at one point in the 'Domine Deus' duet she appeared to get lost and sang a few notes and words in unison with tenor Joshua Ellicott, who mercifully remained unflinching throughout. Her lower range was not quite substantial enough for the 'Laudamus te'; I would have liked to have seen Jennifer Johnston's delicious mezzo being given an outing here. Johnston was bolder and more confident, and it is a real pity that she was not afforded a solo in this performance. That said, counter-tenor William Towers's two arias were a great success. His nimbleness was combined with a gutsy falsetto, making for an energetic, appealing 'Qui sedes' and a beguiling Agnus Dei. Benedict Nelson's baritone was fruity, but could have done with greater projection (having his head in his copy for so much of the time surely did not help), as at times the orchestra outbalanced him. 

The orchestra's performance on modern instruments (and, where applicable, modern bows) made for a bright sound to match that of Clare Choir, though there were moments where I felt that it was too bright, and I wondered how it might have sounded with baroque instrumentation. It did, though, allow the natural trumpets to let rip, and splendidly so. As the volume of applause at the end reflected, the glory was theirs. Their boisterousness shone through in their radiant playing, and any number of post-concert beers – surely I wasn't the only one to notice the sneaky hand gesture as they went off stage – were well deserved. It is a shame that not all of the aspects of the performance provided as much entertainment, and from concerts past I know that the Aurora Orchestra is capable of putting a fresh, engaging spin on the most popular of concert works, which sadly was not the case here. For all the criticism, it hasn't put me off seeing more of the Aurora, and I hope that I will make it to what looks set to be an exciting programme of performances at Kings Place in the New Year.