Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bach's Mass in B-minor

J. S. Bach: Mass in B-Minor. Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, Ton Koopman, conductor, Saturday, March 10, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Produced by Cal Performances.

Bach's B-minor Mass is a mass of contradictions. More of it is in D major (the key of natural trumpets) than in B minor, and, at nearly two hours long, it was never intended to be performed in an actual mass. The different pieces that make up the work were composed decades apart; Bach, a devout Lutheran, combined them into a whole by replacing the texts of those sections that had originally been in German with Latin, the language of the Catholic service.

So why did Bach assemble this monumental work if it was neither composed nor intended to be performed as a whole? (In fact, the first performance of the work in its entirety did not occur until more than a century after his death.) As Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested, it seems to have been intended (along with other late works such as A Musical Offering and The Art of the Fugue) as a compendium of Bach's compositional techniques, a summation and culmination of his life's work and a set of models for others to follow.

That description makes it sound somewhat academic, and indeed Wolff's biography of Bach (Norton, 2000) is subtitled "The Learned Musician." However, the music of the B-minor Mass is simply transporting. Here is "Gloria in excelsis Deo/Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" from Phillippe Herreweghe's superb second recording with the Collegium Vocale (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901614.15):

This is music that can lift you out of your seat; unfortunately there were few such moments during the performance of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman last Saturday. Koopman's tempos sometimes dragged, there were occasional moments of mis-coordination between the soloists and the orchestra, at times the choir sounded ragged, and the instruments weren't always in tune. Tuning was especially a problem for the winds; in "Et in spiritum sanctum dominum," a bass solo accompanied by oboes, the instruments were painfully off-key.

An occasional miscue or sour note is only to be expected in such a massive and difficult work. But Koopman's group sounded underrehearsed, which seems incredible given their long association with Bach's music (they have recorded Bach's complete cantatas, among other works). In combination with Koopman's sometimes plodding tempos, the group's musical struggles kept this transcendent music firmly earthbound. In a pre-concert interview with Jeffrey Thomas of American Bach Soloists, Koopman asserted that the B-minor Mass is one of the most difficult of all choral works; unfortunately, this performance made it sound like it. Matters weren't helped by Koopman's odd decision to break for intermission after performing 19 of the work's 25 sections, leaving only half an hour's music for the second half of the concert.

It was so disappointing that when I got home I put on Herreweghe's recording, just to reassure myself of how magnificent this work can be. Here is Andreas Scholl performing "Agnus dei":

Thanks to elias12186 and civileso for posting these wonderful clips.


  1. Yes, it is some of the greatest music ever composed, and I say that as someone who is not religious. That's why I found the seemingly disengaged performance of Koopman's group to be so distressing. To be charitable, perhaps it was just an off night, which can happen to even the best performers.

    By the way, Luis is a Portuguese music scholar who blogs in both English and Portuguese about a wide range of music; you can find his blog at luishenriques.blogspot.com. Luis is actually knowledgeable about music, while I remain a lamentable amateur (in both the positive and negative senses of the word).

    Thanks, Luis, for your comment!

  2. Thank you for the kind words. Although I'm a musicologist by profession, I always try to keep an open mind: We are always learning from others. This is a quite interesting blog and I must explore it.

    Best wishes,