Philippe Herreweghe / Collegium Vocale Gent
J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232

KKL, Lucerne, 2019-06-17

4-star rating

2019-06-21 — Original posting


Philippe Herreweghe (© Michiel Hendryckx)
Philippe Herreweghe (© Michiel Hendryckx)

Outline


Introduction & Program

For the end of the season 2018/2019, the Foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics invited Philippe Herreweghe (*1947) and the Collegium Vocale Gent for a concert in the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL). This concert was the seventh stop on the ensemble’s tour through Europe. That tour featured eight concerts between 2019-06-10 and 2019-06-18 and took the musicians to Baden-Baden, Madrid, Barcelona, Brussels, London, Amsterdam, Lucerne, and Vienna. The tour featured one single composition, the Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750).

Artists

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent

Philippe Herreweghe was born 1947 in Ghent (Belgium). In that same city, he studied medicine (at Ghent University), as well as music at the Royal Conservatory of Ghent. While studying piano with Marcel Gazelle (1907 – 1969), he also started conducting.

In 1970, he founded the Collegium Vocale Gent. This ensemble consisted of a group of friends at the conservatory, and it became one of the pioneering groups specializing in historically informed performances (HIP). Gustav Leonhardt (1928 – 2012) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016) invited Herreweghe to participate in their project of recording all on Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas. The Collegium Vocale Gent ended up supplying the tenor- and bass voices in Gustav Leonhardt’s part of the cantata project, complementing the boys’ choir (the Tölzer Knabenchor or the Knabenchor Hannover).

However, unlike what one might suspect from the name, the Collegium Vocale Gent not only includes a full choir (the symphonic choir lately has expanded its repertoire into romantic, modern and contemporary oratorio), but also a group of instrumentalists, i.e., its own baroque orchestra, using period instruments.

Dorothee Mields, Soprano I

The German soprano Dorothee Mields (*1971) grew up in Gelsenkirchen. The primary focus in her repertoire is in baroque music, within which she has developed a particular interest in little known composers & works. Besides pursuing her concert career, Dorothee Mields is also teaching, currently at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany. This was my first encounter with the artist.

Hana Blažiková, Soprano II

The Czech artist Hana Blažiková (*1980, see also Wikipedia) is pursuing multiple careers at once: she plays the bass guitar in a rock band, she also plays the harp—and as a soprano, her repertoire spans from Gregorian chant to baroque music, especially Bach. In the latter field, she has been working with prominent conductors such as Masaaki Suzuki (*1954), Ton Koopman (*1944), and Sir John Eliot Gardiner (*1943).

I have witnessed Hana Blažiková in concert once, unfortunately just in the tiny role of Euridice in L’Orfeo — favola in musica by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 – 1643), in a performance with Sir John Eliot Gardiner in Lucerne, on 2017-08-22.

Alex Potter, Countertenor

The countertenor Alex Potter started as a chorister at Southwark Cathedral. He then was Choral Scholar at New College in Oxford, and from there, he went on to the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, where he mainly studied with Gerd Türk. With this education, his career as countertenor (of course with focus on the baroque repertoire) is now rapidly gaining momentum. This was my first encounter with the artist.

Thomas Hobbs, Tenor

The tenor Thomas Hobbs grew up in Exeter, England, U.K.. For details on his biography see the artist’s Website. Key points in his activities as singer are his cooperation with Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent over the past 10 years, as well as his work with the Ensemble Pygmalion and Raphaël Pichon (*1984, see also Wikipedia).

I have witnessed Thomas Hobbs in concert once, at a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Zurich, on 2014-12-19. Back then, I was fascinated by his voice—even though that concert did not allow the tenor to deploy the full potential of his capabilities.

Krešimir Stražanac, Bass-Baritone

Finally, there’s the Croatian bassbaritone Krešimir Stražanac (*1983): he made an excellent impression on me in a recent concert, not even two months ago (Zurich 2019-05-10), when he jumped in at very short notice. For details on his biography, see the artist’s Website.

Setting, etc.

For this concert, the 1900 seats of the White Hall in the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre (KKL) sold well, though the even was not sold out (the gallery above the podium remained empty). My daughter and I had seats 5 & 6 in row 11 in the stall seating, in the second half (Credo up to the end) we were even offered a swap to seats 9 & 10, close to the center of the same row. There are hardly any better seats than this!

My wife had a seat close to the center of the first row in the fourth balcony. She committed the sacrilege of using her iPhone to take a few pictures during the performance—though completely inconspicuously, just above the balcony parapet (I hope we did not upset anyone!). A few of the photos below (pre-concert and applause only) are from my daughter’s iPhone.


Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232

The Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is a firm centerpiece in the baroque choral repertoire, so it hardly requires an introduction. The work is also called “Hohe Messe in h-moll” (“Hohe Messe as the equivalent to a missa solemnis).

It may sound unusual for a Protestant / Lutheran composer to write a full (Catholic) Mass. Apart from this mass, Bach did actually write several Missa compositions—short masses consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only, for the use in Lutheran services. However the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II the Strong (August der Starke, 1670 – 1733), as well as his successor and son, Frederick Augustus II (Friedrich August II, 1696 – 1763) were also Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania. And for that role, they converted to catholicism, while Saxony remained a stronghold of Protestantism.

Structure

  1. Kyrie
    1. Kyrie eleison
    2. Christe eleison
    3. Kyrie eleison
  2. Gloria
    1. Gloria in excelsis
    2. Et in terra pax
    3. Laudamus te
    4. Gratias agimus tibi
    5. Domine Deus
    6. Qui tollis peccata mundi
    7. Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris
    8. Quoniam tu solus sanctus
    9. Cum Sancto Spiritu
  3. Credo (“Symbolum Nicenum”)
    1. Credo in unum Deum
    2. Patrem omnipotentem
    3. Et in unum Dominum
    4. Et incarnatus est
    5. Crucifixus
    6. Et resurrexit
    7. Et in Spiritum Sanctum
    8. Confiteor
    9. Et expecto
  4. Sanctus
  5. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem
    1. Osanna
    2. Benedictus
    3. Osanna (da capo)
    4. Agnus Dei
    5. Dona Nobis Pacem
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Deborah Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Deborah Kyburz)

The Performance

Podium Arrangement

Orchestra

At the center of the orchestra, there was the basso continuo, consisting of a chest organ, two baroque cellos and a double bass. To the left of the continuo, there were two violas and 3 + 3 violins. All string instruments were (presumably) baroque models with gut strings, and baroque bows were used.

The right-hand wing of the orchestra featured three oboe / oboe d’amore players, two traversos in the first row, two bassoons, a timpanist and three trumpet players (narrow-bore, baroque natural trumpets). 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. The horn here looked like a cor d’orchestre, with the crook inserted between the mouthpiece and the body of the instrument. More on that later.

Choir

All soloists formed an integral, part of the choir, which ended up featuring 3 + 3 sopranos, 4 altos (actually one also and three countertenors), 4 tenors, and 4 basses. The choir (in a single row) formed a quarter-circle behind the orchestra.

Philippe Herreweghe, in his unpretentious attitude, did not use a podium, just stood near the music stand with the score, in the center of the orchestra’s semi-circle.. And, of course, he did not use a baton.

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)

General Observations

Orchestra

Not surprisingly, the 24 musicians of the orchestra and their conductor formed a single, big “family”, where everybody participated actively. I particularly noted the very active roles of the concertmaster, and (even more so) the man at the first desk of the second violins.

Sure, there are even smaller ensembles—yet, in this concert hall, the effect of the ensemble’s performance was that of—almost—chamber music: intimate, highly differentiated, transparent, warm colors, devoid of acuity. 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.

The orchestra performed at A’=415 Hz. This moved the high segments into a more comfortable range for the singers. However, at the same time, it of course moved the bottom end further down, compared to performances at A’=440 Hz, see below.

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?

Conductor

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.

With the above, I don’t mean to belittle Herreweghe’s role: what counts is the preparation, and ultimately the outcome, not how he acts in concert. A conductor’s “show” adds very little to the music, unless it is necessary to motivate the musicians in the orchestra or the singers.

Choir

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. Some of the soloists (most notably the tenor Thomas Hobbs) have been performing with and within the Collegium Vocale for years, others (I haven’t checked the details) have just joined the choir for this tour. This bears the danger of less-than-complete integration of these singers. It could make them stand out from within a voice, or they might add a disproportional amount of personal character / color to a given voice. This may or may not work out to the advantage of the overall result.


I. Kyrie

Kyrie eleison

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. Perfection in rhythm and timing is hardly possible with Herreweghe’s rudimentary conducting, which only worked out thanks to the concertmaster and the leader of the second violins were so active in their motions and playing.

After the initial Kyrie “statement”, the oboe d’amore and the traversos sounded strikingly soft, mellow—certainly, orchestral balance was a key focus in Herreweghe’s work / preparation. 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). But, as stated above, the overall sound remained intimate, differentiated: not a “big statement”, but expressing the humble, begging “Have mercy, Lord” in the text. Very remarkable: the long and distinct decrescendo (and a subtle ritenuto) over the last bars.
★★★★

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Dorothee Mields & Hana Blažiková (Christe eleison)

Christe eleison

A very fluent tempo, with very expressive and detailed dynamics in the two violin voices playing in unison: beautiful! Then, we met the two soprano soloists, Dorothee Mields and Hana Blažiková. The latter did not exert a huge volume. I’m sure she consciously restricted her voice, such that it maintained the balance within the duet, as well as with the period instruments in the orchestra. However, her timbre felt warm, and I liked her articulation and phrasing (the Gestaltung).
★★★★

Dorothee Mields’ voice occasionally sounded a tad nervous in the vibrato. More importantly, she had a slight tendency towards Nachdrücken, this sudden crescendo at the end of longer notes, towards the transition to the next one. 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.

One should not mix this up with letting a tone grow with a subtle controlled / continuous crescendo. However, even the latter appeared too regularly / predictably (and too poignantly) in Dorothee Mields’ singing. And it did not seem in tune with Hana Blažiková’s more “percussive” articulation / phrasing, rather discharging long notes.
★★★

Kyrie eleison

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. Later in the fugue, as already in the first Kyrie, I noted a certain tendency towards Nachdrücken in the choir soprano—and now I realized that this was Dorothee Mields’ voice “injecting” that “feature” (possibly involuntarily, though).
★★★½


Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Choir (Gloria in excelsis Deo)

II. Gloria

Gloria in excelsis

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. However, this is likely just the memory of bright, “brassy” modern trumpets in performances with modern orchestras (which are hard to forget in a piece as catchy as this one!). 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. My main (but still minor) quibble was not with the sound, but with the Italian pronunciation of the Latin text: at least in German-speaking regions (and with Bach’s music in general) I would expect “German” pronunciation (e.g., “extselsis”, not “eccelsis”).
★★★★½

Et in terra pax

The transition to the Et in terra pax is immediate—as per Bach’s score (in the middle of a bar, albeit with a change from 3/8 to 4/4 time). The transition itself was OK, though maybe a tad (too) immediate: a minute ritenuto around the first “Et” might have helped making it sound more natural? 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!). My preference would have been a very slightly slower pace (or maybe different phrasing / articulation to that effect?).

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?

And once again, too much memory from modern performances may have affected the listening experience: the dynamic span of period instruments is more limited than that of modern orchestras, so one may have needed to adjust one’s hearing and expectations to the more modest (if not delicate) build-up in this segment. Or was this the effect of a period ensemble performing in a large concert venue such as the KKL?
★★★★

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Hana Blažiková (Laudamus te)

Laudamus te

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! Again, volume was not needed here: rather, Hana Blažiková’s timbre was clear and natural, her singing unpretentious, perfectly fitting into the context. 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).
★★★★½

Gratias agimus tibi

Nice dynamic arches—at a rather fluent pace: this time, the tempo seemed OK for the orchestra, while for the choir I personally would have preferred a slightly slower pace, in order to allow for more detailed phrasing (& maybe agogics) in the quaver figures. The last stroke (D) in the timpani was excessively loud/noisy—a momentary mishap?
★★★★

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Dorothee Mields & Thomas Hobbs (Domine Deus)

Domine Deus

One of the true highlights in the entire mass! There’s this unearthly marvelous, gentle, mellow solo on the traverso (★★★★★), the equally gently and soft sound of the muted violins and violas, and the pizzicato bass defining pace and movement, and the pace seemed “spot on”—I could listen to this forever!

As for the soloists: again, volume was not the issue here, in this most intimate movement. Dorothee Mields’ (★★★½) Nachdrücken was less conspicuous here, and I liked Thomas Hobbs’ mellow, but clear tenor timbre (★★★★).

Qui tollis peccata mundi

In Bach’s score, the Domine Deus ends on the third beat of a 4/4 bar, and the last beat (continuo, strings, choir alto) already is the upbeat to the first 3/4 bar of the Qui tollis. There is no rest, so the Qui tollis appears to follow attacca. I’m not the musicologist to judge whether this really implies attacca, or whether this seamless linkage is just one of Bach’s “spleens”? 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.

After the scare of the transition, though, we could enjoy the careful dynamics, the long phrases with the continuous crescendo on the extended tones—with the one minor quibble of the “t” in deprecationem sounding too dry: even in “German Latin” I expected something sounding similar to deprecazionem, or at least a “t” with aspiration? That’s not for language correctness, merely for the acoustic clarity.
★★★★

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Alex Potter (Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris)

Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris

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!
★★★★★

However, I wondered whether Herreweghe’s tempo was a tad fast. The singer definitely had no issue, and for the cantilena, the tempo was just fine. However, at least in the first part, the musician at the oboe d’amore seemed to fight problems: the instrument’s response sometimes was delayed, a passage missing entirely, and there were also intonation issues. Clearly, historic instruments (or replicas) are not as reliable as modern oboes. They offer vastly more color, a gentler tone, etc., though. Still, I asked myself whether it wouldn’t have been worthwhile to select a slightly slower pace?

Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Philippe Herreweghe, Collegium Vocale Gent @ KKL, 2019-06-17 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Krešimir Stražanac (Quoniam tu solus sanctus)

Quoniam tu solus sanctus

I felt sorry for the poor hornist! At first, I wondered why he was playing a cor d’orchestre rather than a cor solo—the latter seemed far more appropriate for this single appearance in the entire mass. 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. 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. In addition, the instrument’s response seemed slow. Often, the articulation remained entirely unclear. That’s not what I picture for a corno da caccia (hunting horn) that Bach asked for! But sure, Bach’s score is a huge, virtuosic challenge on the natural horn, and there were definitely some excellent passages—between muddled ones.

On to the soloist, Krešimir Stražanac: as I remembered from an earlier concert, Stražanac has a very nice voice and excellent volume. In fact, in the baritone register, he easily seemed to match, if not exceed the horn’s volume. On the other hand, in the bass register, the singer often appeared to lack volume—and the extra half-tone in depth from the baroque pitch didn’t make things any better, nor did the singer’s slightly covered timbre in the bass register.
★★★½

Cum Sancto Spiritu

Clear, virtuosic, excellent singing, throughout the choir, with excellent flexibility in the coloraturas! Maybe with a slight tendency to push forward, causing a certain restlessness. And the final beats on the timpani weren’t exactly subtle…

Initially I had been wondering about the particular color of the coir’s alto register. Now that I had heard Alex Potter as soloist, I also knew where that particular color came from! Alex Potter seemed to dominate that voice slightly—or he and the other two countertenors in the choir outweighted the one alto. That’s not criticism at all—quite to the contrary: I actually liked the color of that voice!
★★★★


III. Credo (“Symbolum Nicenum”)

Credo in unum Deum

A very fluent tempo (at the limit, maybe), light and clear in the choir articulation, with the Gregorian melody always clearly standing out
★★★★

Patrem omnipotentem

More excellent choir singing! Though: here, it was often hard to follow the choir bass (★★★½), whereas the other voices (★★★★½) were excellent throughout. One minor quibble: clearly, the sopranos had no problem reaching peak notes such as the B” in bar #75 (particularly at A’=415 Hz!). However, to me, this does not justify making such notes stand out from the melody. As high pitch notes have enough presence anyway, shouldn’t they rather be discharged / taken back a tad?
★★★★

Et in unum Dominum

This duet (soprano I + altus) corrected the mixed impression that I had from Dorothee Mields’ first solo (duet) appearance in Christe eleison: together with Alex Potter, she now formed an excellent duo, with much better voice control, and also the balance between soloists and orchestra was very good. Excellent duet singing, and also the two oboi d’amore left a far better impression than the single oboe d’amore in the Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris within the Gloria.
★★★★½

Et incarnatus est

Excellent choir singing—however, to me, this performance missed out on the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. Not from the technical performance, the phrasing, articulation, dynamics, etc., but in the spirit, the atmosphere, this sounded a bit too central, maybe technical. I picture this movement subtle, delicate, mysterious (depicting a mystery, the awe of those describing the miracle of the incarnation). Maybe a smaller choir, or perhaps sotto voce singing would have been more adequate?

When I appear to use religious arguments, that’s not a representation of my own feelings or beliefs. However, I think that for reasons of historic correctness (and irrespective of the artists’ personal views) one should perform Bach’s Mass in consideration of the religious spirit at the time of creation—the time of Pietism. Certainly, with that composition, Bach meant to express highly religious views, and I’m sure that that’s the way his Mass was received in the 18th century.
★★★½

Crucifixus

This movement with its lament bass as foundation for a Passacaglia, with all the cross (crucification) symbols in the upper instrumental voices forms the very center of the Credo—tragic and highly religious. Also here, to me, the choir performance felt a bit too “technical”. Maybe also the pace was a tad fast? Herreweghe did add a slight ritardando to the final piano bars, he did do the fermata on the last note after Et sepultus est.
★★★½

Et resurrexit

The tragedy that the preceding Et sepultus est describes in my opinion deserved a longer moment of reflection, before the Et resurrexit expresses the joy of Christ’s resurrection. Here, the choir was certainly joyful, lively, but I think that this was at the expensive of some voice culture (at least, this made it sound less technical).

I didn’t quite understand why Herreweghe had Krešimir Stražanac perform the Et iterum venturus est as solo. True, with (especially lay) choirs this often turns stomping, if not almost military, and Krešimir Stražanac didn’t let that happen. However, I’m sure that the four basses here had the potential for giving this an adequate performance?! I could think of other places (Et incarnatus est?) where a solo choir might have been more appropriate.
★★★½

Et in Spiritum Sanctum

Ah—here now, Krešimir Stražanac produced one of the real highlights of the evening! True, the simple accompaniment with two oboi d’amore and basso continuo made things easier for the solo voice (and the two oboi d’amore jointly gave a beautiful performance)—but then, the Et in spiritum sanctum also seemed ideal for the singer’s voice: truly beautiful singing, beautiful timbre—it’s hard to think of a better performance than this one—congrats!
★★★★★

Confiteor

Very good choir performance, transparent, with clear highlighting of the cantus firmus—although the homogeneity within the individual voices wasn’t quite at the level of other chorus numbers.
★★★★

Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum (Adagio — Vivace e Allegro)

The Adagio part is far more critical than the listener might believe! Here, not only the voice homogeneity wasn’t always at top level. Moreover, in the short, modulating a cappella solo of the choir sopranos in bars 137/138 (a nightmare for lay choirs!!), the voices appeared to lack the ultimate firmness in intonation.

The joyful Vivace e Allegro part although quite virtuosic for the choir, isn’t problematic at all—joyful, light, transparent, with excellent coloraturas and dynamics. Noteworthy, Herreweghe’s very short, abrupt (almost staccato) closing note (crotchet).
★★★★


IV. Sanctus

Here now, the choir switched to double-choir configuration, SSSAATTBB—BBTTAASSS (the Sanctus only splits soprano and alto voices, but isn’t truly for double choir. However, the subsequent Osanna (Part V) is. The Sanctus received an excellent, festive performance, with differentiated dynamics and phrasing. The Pleni sunt coeli was lively, virtuosic, light, transparent, with plasticity in the soundscape, drive and momentum. True, the soundscape wasn’t always rhythmically entirely clear—maybe after almost two hours, the concentration, and with that the coordination started to suffer slightly? However, Bach’s music still carried the performance.
★★★★


V. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem

Osanna

I noted that Herreweghe continued with exactly the tempo of the preceding Pleni sunt coeli . Needless to say that the double-choir arrangement helped, was even crucial in making this performance transparent. Here’s the first time where—at last—the three trumpets raised their shining, brilliant sound: natural trumpets can do that, too, obviously!
★★★★

BenedictusOsanna (da capo)

The tenor, Thomas Hobbs, was the last one to get a chance for a solo performance. The movement starts with the solo traverso, at a fluent pace (an excellent performance—can’t let the flutist run out of breath!). Thomas Hobbs voice has a very nice, clear, bright timbre, with “ping”, well-projecting. What I didn’t quite like, though, was his tendency to discharge strongly some of the ending syllables—occasionally, they almost vanished in the soundscape.
★★★½

(For the Osanna da capo see above.)

Agnus Dei

The Agnus Dei proved another, touching highlight, with its calm, stepping bass line, the joint violins forming a touching dialog / discourse with Alex Potter’s beautiful voice: unpretentious, simple, but highly intense, with careful and diligent dynamics—simply marvelous!
★★★★★

Dona Nobis Pacem

A conclusion full of harmonious build-ups and arches in dynamics and intensity. Was it just my personal impression that this final piece lacked a tiny bit of emotion, maybe failed to touch one’s heart as much as it could have? Or was that just because Philippe Herreweghe did not manage or not intend to keep the silence after the last note for very long, before the applause broke out?
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Conclusions

A rich performance—truly historically informed, for sure—with some excellent, top-class highlights: Alex Potter’s two solos, in particular, as well as Krešimir Stražanac in his second solo, good, often excellent choir performances. Also the orchestra was excellent in general (string sections and woodwinds in particular)—but overall, it is hard to condense one’s impressions from this concert into one single, short statement / judgement.



AboutSite PolicyGeneral Remarks | Impressum, Legal, TimelineAcknowledgements
Technical RemarksTypographical ConventionsWP Site Information

2 thoughts on “Herreweghe: Bach, Mass in B minor — KKL Lucerne, 2019-06-17”

  1. Dear Rolf,

    I Love Bach’s Mass in B Minor very much as I have a great love for Sacred Polyphony.

    In My Humble Opinion, John Eliot Gardiner dishes out a very good performance with regard to this Sacred Composition by Bach.

    I have listened attentively to it and I specially love the way Gardiner conducts this awesome and amazing Mass.

    The Sacred Chorale that sings it sings the Kyrie and Gloria and Credo very well.

    This Performance that you have reviewed also obviously dishes out an excellent performance.

    I would like to ask you for a favor ??

    Would it be possible for you to a detailed review on Beethoven The Complete Piano Trios — if ever there is a live performance of it in your part of the woods.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Very interesting, Rolf. I’ve only recently started to explore the B Minor Mass, influenced by the contention that it is the “greatest” of all musical compositions. To date I only know Eugen Jochum’s with the choir and orchestra of des Bayenschen Rundfunks. From it I do sense that the claims made for the work are to be taken seriously, but I have found performance is critical to my experiencing the greatness of a composition. I would be interested in your own comparisons in that regard, i.e. your experience of the one that realizes it best.

    Thanks also for the note about why Bach was writing a Catholic mass. Till now I assumed that Lutherans must still have been practicing the same liturgy as RCs centuries after Luther’s break with Rome, and that did seem odd. I grew up in a parish where the Sunday high mass, celebrated in a 19th-century small stone church, was sung by a quartet of professional-quality singers. The organ took up all the space at the rear of the church apart from the clearance for the entranceway. It’s low notes made the windows vibrate during communion service. I was present as altar boy and had a good position from which to hear the music. I suspect much of it was Bach. I was used to Gregorian, which we school children rehearsed all week to sing at the earlier children’s mass, and Bach was strange to my ears, not to mention the proximity of trained operatic voices.

    All of which is to say that when I listen to the B Minor or any other mass I hear it in its intended religious context which I once took very seriously indeed. Bach doesn’t seem to have had any trouble entering into that spirit despite his Lutheran/Pietist orientation (unlike what I hear in Mozart who sounds to me like someone whose religiosity runs much less deep; I love his Requiem, but it seems to me that an atheist could have written it).

    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: