Today’s apt sunday afternoon concert featured the four Lutheran masses of J.S. Bach. Although the music itself was not entirely new, but instead recycled material, and despite the text which repeats in each mass, the work is fresh and rich with counterpoint and the emotional Affekt Bach is so known for.

Les Violons du Roy and Bernard Labadie © Camirand Photo
Les Violons du Roy and Bernard Labadie
© Camirand Photo

The petit ensemble of Les Violons du Roy, founded by Bernard Labadie in 1984, splits their time between Québec City and Montréal. The usual core of 15 players was slightly beefed up tonight with the addition of winds, organ and horns. The chorus was La Chapelle de Québec, also founded by the far from idle Labadie, and was arranged tonight in a single arcing row along the back of the ensemble.

Each mass contains six parts which more or less use the same repeating text. When performed together, this repetition carries the audience through a series of formal patters, or a continuous emotional cycle, yet with new music each time. Each mass ends with a jubilant chorus which reads “With the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father. Amen.”

Labadie and his Violons were as musical as ever. The orchestra plays on modern instruments, yet is highly informed by musicological research when crafting their interpretation. These musicians seem completely at ease in this oeuvre, leaning into suspensions with delicious straight-tone, each voice blooming after the other, and consistently engaged in a sophisticated musical dialogue. The chorus was also very well trained, though the sopranos quite overbalanced the rest of the ensemble the whole evening.

Masses were originally conceived to be performed as part of a worship service. They now serve a very different purpose, however, when performed in a place like the Maison Symphonique, no matter how much it may resemble a cathedral inside. In this capacity the masses take on a secular identity, and one must wonder how, if at all, to temper a performance to reflect this fact. We now focus on, and almost deify, J.S. Bach himself, and become even more aware of the performers.

Labadie crafted his interpretation by focusing on the myriad of minute musical details. It is clear from each downbeat that he wholly knows the music, and he shows each nuance and entrance clearly with his elegant baton technique.

The soloists tonight were very fine as well. Tenor Thomas Cooley had a very nuanced voice, often beginning his vocal line with pure straight tone which he would then ornament with delicate vibrato. Countertenor Robin Blaze and soprano Shannon Mercer also fared well, and shared a wonderful moment of vocal blend during their duet in the G major mass, BVW 236. The strongest soloist tonight, however, was bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus who had a powerfully confident voice which was featured most memorably in a string of athletic melismas, also in the G major mass.

Tonight Les Violons du Roy yet again proved their mettle as a valued and impressive ensemble in this province.

***11