“The Announcement of the Greatest Musical Work of All Times and All People” was how Hans Georg Nägeli, the first publisher of the work, described Bach’s Mass in B minor. Albert Schweitzer described the duality in the work as “...one in which the sublime and intimate co-exist side by side, as do the Catholic and Protestant elements, all being as enigmatic and unfathomable as the religious consciousness of the work’s creator.”

© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
© Mario Mintoff/VIBF

The performance of this work, given as the third concert of the second Valletta International Baroque Festival, certainly encompassed these remarks.

The work was performed by The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket. The venue for this most memorable concert was the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta’s capital.

For the performance, Bicket utilized limited instrumental and choral groups. This proved to be most suitable for this venue. This was a remarkable evening. While acknowledging that everyone’s perception of the music is different, there seemed to be a consensus among the packed audience that this practically flawless performance was something quite extraordinary.

Harry Bicket, not directing from the harpsichord (due to the logistical problems of moving instruments from different venues used for the festival) as is the norm, managed to establish an ideal balance between the soft timbres of the period instruments – especially the woodwind, contributing their particular colour to the music’s atmosphere. The choir created an overall wonderful effect, singing very smoothly, with a good line balanced nicely with the instrumental forces.

For the Christe, sopranos Natalie Clifton Grifith and Rebecca Outram blended beautifully, supported by a strong bass line. Perhaps it was my position, near to the front, but I felt that at times the sopranos’ voices did not carry from where they were positioned. This was probably due to the acoustics of the building. When they sang solo from the body of the choir their voices carried much better. It did not, however, damage the overall effect of the work.

Musically it was of an extremely high order. The choir of were in fine voice and ranged from the fast brilliance of the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” of the Gloria to the moving interpretation of the “Et incarnatus” and “Crucifixus” from the Credo. In the “Et resurrexit”, three natural trumpets added glowing radiance, as they did throughout the performance as and when required.

For the duet of the “Domine Deus”, the voices of the soprano Natalie Clifton Grifith and tenor Nicholas Mulroy were beautifully matched.

The sympathetic support of the solo instruments used to accompany the individual singers – especially, the flutes and oboes were perfect. A natural horn was used to accompany the solo bass.

The alto, Timothy Travers Brown, brought clarity and a fabulous sense of line to his solos; he marvellously projected the vocal line with ease and without ever forcing. He finished with a performance of exquisite beauty in the Agnus Dei.

The orchestra were on similarly stunning form, providing a series of superb instrumental obbligatos as well as sympathetic tutti playing, giving the music a great sense of line and shape.

The work was brought to a dignified conclusion with the Dona nobis pacem. The performances were of highest standard musically, with intelligent realisations of the individual movements, the whole coalescing into the spiritual journey, both beautiful and moving, which Bach intended. This view was echoed by snatches of conversation from the audience.

Highlighting individual components of the performance to praise is not perhaps the best way to express up the profound effect that this B minor Mass had. With first-rate musical forces employed, The English Concert created a wonderfully organic entity and an unforgettable performance of what is undoubtedly Bach’s finest masterpiece.