Though only in its seventh year, the Montreal Bach Festival has managed to attract a number of illustrious artists and ensembles, including today’s leading Bach interpreters from around the world. To conclude this year’s Festival, Kent Nagano led two performances of Bach’s “Great” Mass in B minor with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, OSM chamber choir, and an oustanding group of guest soloists that included Sibylla Rubens (soprano), Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano), Julian Prégardien (tenor), and Markus Werba (bass).

Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
© Felix Broede

Because the Mass in B minor is so widely recognized as one of the most monumental works of the western canon, it’s unfortunate that Bach never heard it performed in its entirety during his own lifetime. In fact, it’s precisely because of its sheer size that it was never performed until revivalists took an interest in realizing the unperformed masterwork.

Bach was hoping his mass would earn him the title of court composer to the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland-Lithuania. But, Bach’s Kyrie and Gloria alone were longer than the average Dresden mass in total, making the mass too impractical in size and scope to actually perform functionally within the liturgy. A two-hour marathon full of showcase arias, dazzling instrumental obbligati, and monumental choruses, it is called the “Great” Mass for a reason!

The most exciting aspect of Friday evening’s performance was, without question, the roster of guest soloists, all gifted interpreters of Bach and the music of his contemporaries.

I was most delighted to hear the Anne Hallenberg. Her virtuosic mezzo-soprano is rivaled by a very privileged few, indeed. Her rendition of the florid Laudaumus te, one of my favorite arias in any work, was exceptional. Though Bach likely conceived this aria for Faustina Bordoni, one of the most influential singers of her time, I am sure he would have been exceedingly pleased had he heard Hallenberg.

Julian Prégardien’s performance of the Benedictus was incredibly moving. I was impressed when I heard Prégardien just last year, though I was amazed that since then, he has gained even more control over his instrument and improved his musicianship. Though already respected for his talents, he surely will only become more and more sought after, particularly to perform this glorious repertoire.

Sibylla Rubens, a Baroque specialist who has been featured on recordings of Ton Koopman’s Bach cantata project, was also a treat to hear. Her duet with Hallenberg, the Christie eleison, may have been more enjoyable if Nagano had encouraged a more equal balance between the two voices, as he did during her duet with Prégardien, the Dominus dues.

Markus Werba gave me a new appreciation for the Et in Spiritum Sanctum, usually one of my least favorite movements of this mass, especially in comparison with the more rousing bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus.

While conductor Kent Nagano is certainly not known as a specialist in 18th-century repertoire, he ably led the OSM through Bach’s dense score. The orchestra’s section leaders rose to the occasion to play the many instrumental obbligati that gild Bach’s already ornate score. In fact, I wish I could have heard a solo instrumental lines even more. After hearing principal flautist Timothy Hutchins play so sensitively in the Domine Deus, it was a shame Nagano did not allow him and his colleague to play out more during the Qui tollis. I had to strain to hear the two interlocking flute solos that make this movement so mystical.

Principal oboist Theodore Baskin also deserves special mention for his engaging performance. Watching him dance along as he played, I could tell that he relished these delicious obbligati despite the fact that Bach sometimes expects the oboist to play an almost impossible amount of notes all in a single breath!

The OSM chamber choir, led by Andrew Megill, was perfectly sized to perform Bach’s grand choruses. Decades ago, Bach conductors got into wars over how many singers should perform on a part, resulting in modern performance practices that range from doing it one-on-a-part to calling in the supplemental chorus. The OSM chamber choir was large enough not to sound anemic in the generously sized Maison Symphonique, but small enough to allow Bach’s four, five, six and eight-part choruses to dance.

At the end of an epic like the Mass in B minor, audiences should feel as if they’ve crossed an ocean, climbed a mountain, and soared through the clouds. Nagano did not lead this listener on an epic adventure Friday night. But, the concert still provided a grand finale to the Montreal Bach Festival and featured outstanding musicianship overall.