Mass in B Minor, BWV232, No. 11: Quoniam tu solus sanctus
To the right of the choir, there was the hornist with his natural horn. Bach specifies a corno da caccia hunting horn. I would have expected a big, circular horn for a corno da caccia. More on that later. The choir in a single row formed a quarter-circle behind the orchestra.
BBC - Music - Review of Johann Sebastian Bach - Mass in B Minor
And, of course, he did not use a baton. I particularly noted the very active roles of the concertmaster, and even more so the man at the first desk of the second violins. No trumping up—even the brass instruments trumpets and horn , which one often hears brilliantly touting the Glory of the Lord, remained moderate, if not often matte. The timpanist used sticks with light, turned wooden heads: not a soloist in function. He was merely adding contours to the few, festive choral numbers, where it is used. This moved the high segments into a more comfortable range for the singers.
An interesting side-note: there were 8 women among the 11 string players, but none among the woodwind and brass nor timpani or chest organ musicians—a coincidence? To say that Philippe Herreweghe was conducting would be an exaggeration. Quite obviously, the bulk of his work happened in the preparation, the rehearsals.
In concert, he made minute, scarce gestures to indicate bar lines at most. He actually used more body motions and language than hand or arm gestures. Several times, he walked away from the music stand with the score, moving towards the group of musicians wind instruments, in particular, or a section of the choir that was of particular importance at a given moment.
But even these movements remained inconspicuous: no big gestures, no outbursts: never he was trying to attract attention, even in accepting the applause, he seemed almost embarrassed. In line with the somewhat intimate orchestral setting, the choir with its 18 members focused on intensity of expression, lively sound, dynamics and articulation. Exerting power was not the objective here different from performances with big, especially lay choirs.
Having external soloists perform as integral part of the choir certainly helps the volume, possibly the quality of the sound. This bears the danger of less-than-complete integration of these singers. This may or may not work out to the advantage of the overall result. It took a few seconds to adjust to the sound of the ensemble! The volume of the choir was definitely sufficient for this venue, but not overpowering. Rather, the voices appeared linear, clear, with very limited vibrato , careful in the dynamics, building phrasing arches with finely controlled crescendo across long notes: transparency and intensity in the expression.
The latter also seemed more important that the ultimate precision in coordination. In the fugue, the choir articulated lightly, the tempo fluent, the music never, ever heavy. The choir used legato only selectively, at key points in a phrase or where Bach asked for it. Very remarkable: the long and distinct decrescendo and a subtle ritenuto over the last bars. A very fluent tempo, with very expressive and detailed dynamics in the two violin voices playing in unison: beautiful! The latter did not exert a huge volume. However, her timbre felt warm, and I liked her articulation and phrasing the Gestaltung.
One can often observe this unwanted phenomenon with violins particularly when they are using modern bows —this is the first time when it struck me from a singer. Here, Philippe Herreweghe moved towards the basses, in order to ensure an intense and coherent beginning of the fugue. Yet, he still did not use grand gestures, merely seemed to hint at the beats, the bar lines. Herreweghe avoided all brass dominance in the opening chorus: at first, the comparatively modest sound and brilliance of the natural trumpets felt a little disappointing. It took some adjusting to the sonority of the orchestra to appreciate the qualities of this performance.
The sound of the choir in general was excellent—I particularly enjoyed how effortlessly the sopranos mastered the heights, and the excellent, brilliant timbre of the tenors. Throughout the Et in terra pax I did not feel entirely at ease: there seemed to be a slight unrest throughout the piece, which to me was not in agreement with the pax and peace on Earth! In this segment, the choir bass seemed to be at a slight disadvantage relative to the other voices, maybe also relative to the bass and the timpani in the orchestra?
Johann Sebastian Bach
Or was this the effect of a period ensemble performing in a large concert venue such as the KKL? Ah, this warm, beautiful sonority of a period solo violin with gut strings, played with the gentle stroke of a baroque bow: devoid of sharpness or pungency, yet full of character! As for the soprano II: needless to say that expecting an operatic voice could not be more off than here!
The tempo seemed absolutely adequate for the soprano, but may have been at the upper limit for the violin solo not technically, merely for the ability to apply agogics in the rich ornamentation. One of the true highlights in the entire mass! As for the soloists: again, volume was not the issue here, in this most intimate movement. There is no rest, so the Qui tollis appears to follow attacca.
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Whatever the answer is: I did not expect an extended general rest or a fermata at the transition, but at least a tiny, little ritenuto between the intimate acclamation of the Domine Deus, rex coelestis and the subsequent, somber Qui tollis peccata mundi. The way it was performed, that transition sounded almost frighteningly harsh, too abrupt.
The encounter with the countertenor Alex Potter: what an altus! The most balanced, the most intense voice, excellent in projection, phrasing, harmonious in the vibrato , a beautiful timbre , and an intensity that makes most female alto sound pale—a true highlight of the evening! The singer definitely had no issue, and for the cantilena, the tempo was just fine. Clearly, historic instruments or replicas are not as reliable as modern oboes. They offer vastly more color, a gentler tone, etc. I felt sorry for the poor hornist! I have no additional information on the instrument. My impression was that this was a very narrow-bore instrument, and on top of this, it sounded as if it was muted all the time.
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That was definitely not the case. However, the hand-horn hand in the bell technique that one needs to use with natural horns made the instrument sound extremely thin. Often, one could only hear the harmonics. Often, the articulation remained entirely unclear.
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