The mystery about Bach’s Mass in B minor is: why did he write it? The process of its construction was well described in the programme notes accompanying this performance, without quite answering this question, and perhaps it is unanswerable. The most attractive idea is that, at the end of his life, Bach wanted to sum up his achievements in one final definitive work. In this sense, it should perhaps be seen as his pinnacle masterpiece, which lays down quite a challenge for any performance.

Bach's Mass in B minor in the Church of St Bartholomew the Great
© Colin Sheen

On this occasion, the forces could be described as ideal, in terms of the soloists and musicians, but for some reason it fell just short of being a really involving performance. One should say at the outset that it is possibly a work not really appropriate for streaming, one that really demands being there in person. There were a couple of identifiable shortcomings. The tempi for the earlier part seemed rather slow, there were longish pauses as the soloists moved in and out of position, and the diction of the chorus occasionally sounded muddy. Again, these issues might not have been noticeable if one were there.

Leaving that aside, there were certainly moments of great joy, great sadness and great excitement. As the work proceeded, the music gathered pace, leading to a rousing finish.

The Church of St Bartholomew the Great appears to be a great Bach venue. Conductor Barnaby Smith, himself a countertenor, is particularly associated with the choir Voces8 which performed on this occasion with overall precision and transparent sound. Each department (S1S2ATB) featured three singers, including the soloists. The instrumentalists comprised members of the Academy of Ancient Music deploying period instruments. Their “guest leader” was Rachel Podger, who really approaches Baroque superstar status these days, and was treated as such in the performance. At different points she stood up to accompany soloists, most notably in the soprano aria “Laudamus te”, and the camera lit often on her engrossed/engrossing and often smiling face. Other instruments made their mark – the flute obbligato in the duet “Domine Deus”, and in the “Benedictus” (Rachel Brown), the oboe in the aria “Qui sedes” and “Et in spiritum sanctum” (Mark Baigent).

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One could hardly imagine a better group of soloists. Carolyn Sampson's glorious soprano rang out as ever with appropriate emotional tone. She was joined by Eleonore Cockerham for the “Christe eleison” who provided a fresh and youthful contrast. Iestyn Davies, probably the countertenor of his generation, sang with lovely golden, rounded tone. Tenor and bass solos were taken by leading singers in this repertoire, Jeremy Budd and Matthew Brook, the latter relishing his resonant attack on “Quoniam” in particular.


This performance was reviewed from Live from London's video stream

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