Under conductor Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic and the New York Choral Artists gave an inspired but slightly uneven performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor on Wednesday night. Playing with great panache as well as a mindful sense of the historical weight of the piece, the vocalists and musicians gave bristling and glistening life to a timeless work. Slight hiccups in vocal performance included, the music came across brilliantly. If the decisive blow is always struck left-handed, then Gilbert and the full choral-symphonic ensemble struck with both.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

Gilbert took an aggressive approach to the opening Kyrie eleison, leading the full chorus in an up-tempo interpretation which seemed slightly at odds with the voiced sentiment. The superb balance between chorus and orchestral strings was immediately obvious, the seamless execution displaying musicianship of the highest level. One highly effective (and visible) decision was to have first violins use vibrato and second violins play with a straight tone, which according to some performance practice experts would provide a sound more authentic to the historical period in which the music was written. The combination of the two tones gave the perfect blend of purity and complexity, catering the sound of the orchestra to the modern ear.

In his role not only as interpreter but also as auditor exemplar, Gilbert seemed to direct the entrances of fugue subjects as much for the audience’s benefit as for the players’, almost looking as though he would physically drill the initial articulations out of the performers. This highly performative approach provided help in considering the contrapuntal architecture to those in the audience who might be slightly less attentive or else aren’t familiar with fugue structure, but it occasionally distracted from the complexity of the music by adding exclamation points to what might only amount to a fraction of what is being played.

The solo vocalists were the most highly visible as well as the most varied in their performance. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter’s subtle tone blended well with the orchestral alchemy already mentioned. In her first appearance as a duet with soprano Dorothea Röschmann, however, the latter was overwhelming in a way that made the former’s voice almost frail by comparison. Röschmann’s performance of the soprano II aria Laudamus te, then, came as little surprise. When von Otter sang on her own for the later aria Qui sedes ad dexteram, her tone meshed wonderfully and left little doubt of the suitability of her voice for the role. Bass-baritone Eric Owens provided the low end of the soloists with tenacity, but lacked enough punch to penetrate the orchestral tapestry being woven behind him. While the tenor Steve Davislim was similarly understated, the timbre of his voice gave him a certain ethereal status among the voices. First appearing in trio with the mezzo and soprano soloists, Davislim managed to occupy an entirely other domain of sound. A certain hollowness of tone made the tenor aria in the Osanna (Benedictus qui venit) a high point of the performance. The purely-sounding flute, console organ and solo cello accompaniment fit perfectly with the tenor’s light, detached and straight tone.

The B minor Mass is a truly massive work, as the Philharmonic and Choral Artists drove home with great aplomb in the full orchestra/chorus sections. It is such a massive and heavy thing, in fact, with so many moving parts, that in some sense it is impossible to gain mastery over. Including various pieces from multiple previous phases of the composer’s career and incorporating a wide variety of instrumentations, the mass is, as Gilbert writes in the program notes, “totally and magnificently impractical”. In effect, Bach has marshaled his own past incarnations to assist in a pan-temporal collaboration, the glorious multivocality of which entirely avoids any unwieldiness of form. In the face of not just one genius composer, but an entire phalanx of them, it is hardly a wonder that even a thoroughly masterful musician like Gilbert retrenches to describing the frisson he felt upon handling the original manuscripts in Leipzig.