Francis Browne
Opera News

It is hard to imagine a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that makes more of a statement about the way the piece should go. The period instrument group Arcangelo, under Jonathan Cohen, is here constituted in the minimum numbers needed for the work. The five choral lines are sung by four voices on each part, with an entirely male alto section but with adult female sopranos. The strings of the orchestra are in a 3:3:2:2:1 configuration, and all of the other instruments have one player per part. The only slight oddities are in the (defensible) omission of the “Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum” number, and in the use of the five choral soloists, rather than the billed soloists, for “Confiteor unum baptisma.”

In terms of interpretation, the performance has a clear profile as well. The choral pieces are done as if the music simply takes care of itself—or gives the illusion that this is so—in something of a suave manner, with staggered entrances of imitative vocal lines building up as if in a ritual or like a perpetual motion machine. The pouring of heavy cream from a jug often comes to mind. But the solo movements are done in great contrast to this, with a personal approach that is epitomized by the performance of the “Benedictus,” where the transverse flutist Rachel Brown uses rubato in virtually every bar and the tenor Samuel Boden turns the music into the most intimate moment of the mass. The homogenized texture of the choral numbers is nowhere to be found in moments like the “Domine Deus” duet, where muted violins (a markedly new sonority here), the vocal soloists Lydia Teuscher and Boden, and the pizzicato bass line are each starkly delineated. Certainly the tone of the massed forces in the big moments like the “Gloria” and “Et resurrexit” (where interpretation is initially hectic) is resplendent. But this recording more often directs attention to the moments of pared-down orchestration in the solos, and to the idea of why Bach chose to use solo voices when he did. In the solo “Et in Spiritum Sanctum,” where the bass Neal Davies beautifully lightens his tone, the two oboes d’amore each retain their individuality. The rustic, outdoorsy corno da caccia in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” reminds us that Bach had a life outside of church.

The recording itself raises questions about the sound engineering. The decision was made to do the recording in a church acoustic. Fair enough, and the ability of the chorus to sing as one voice in “Cum sancto Spiritu” is complementary to this idea. But there also seems to have been a decision to mitigate much of the church resonance. The very stately concluding “Dona nobis pacem,” for example, is too clinically cleaned up. Cohen has some good ideas about tempo (an unsuccessful try at maintaining a consistent pulse going into “Pleni sunt coeli” aside) and he finds the dance impulse under “Osanna in excelsis.” But the compromise between two possible acoustics is off-putting in a way that the clear interpretive contrast between choral and solo movements is not.