Concert Review: JS Bach’s Mass in b minor (Arizona Bach Festival)

A review of the Mass in b minor performance as part of the 2011 Arizona Bach Festival

Few pieces in all the repertory have as much gravitas as JS Bach's Mass in b minor (S. 232).  From time to time, when I put together my top 5 favorite pieces in all the repertory, this piece is constantly in that list in a high spot. The top spot in that list of five is often the piece that speaks to me the most at that given moment, and Bach's statement of faith is certainly prominent and poignant to me at this moment.

As my regular concert review readers will note, I usually include a bit of history of the work. As indicated by its title, the work is an entire setting of the Catholic Mass text, containing a Kyrie, a Gloria, the Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), the Sanctus and Benedictus, and an Agnus Dei.  The piece was written and compiled over the last 15 or so years of Bach's life with significant portions borrowed from previous works.  Recent Bach scholarship seems to show that Bach felt the pieces he borrowed for the Mass were the best of his writing.  When Bach borrowed from himself, he ensured that those pieces' texts matched the mood of the various portion of the Mass.

The first two major sections of this Mass, the Kyrie and the Gloria, were actually written as a sort of job application to become the court composer for the Elector of Saxony, a post that Bach did not receive.  This makes one think: what was the eventual court composer's piece if it ousted Bach?  I can't imagine.  Bach's Kyrie and Gloria are divine.

There's also a lot of numerology in the Mass in b minor.  Both the Gloria and the Credo portions are split into nine movements (the number of the Trinity is three and three times three is nine).  The Sanctus is scored for six voices (three times two).  

History, scholarship, and numerology aside, Saturday's performance was absolutely sublime.  I'd have to consider it a historically-informed performance even if the orchestra did not use period instruments.  The tuning system used, 1/6 syntonic comma, played into the different keys of the various movements.  I'm not an expert on temperament, but I do know this: D Major, a key frequently used throughout, sounded jubilant.  B minor, the reference key of this piece, was full of lament.

As to be expected, the 26-voice, GRAMMY-winning Phoenix Chorale was at the top of their game. Long-time Phoenicians will note that until recently, the Chorale was called the Phoenix Bach Choir, and it's good to see them return to their roots every now and again. One observation was that during Bach's contrapuntal writing where different voice parts have different words, each part's lyric became slightly muddied. In addition, the basses seemed to be drowned out by the other voice parts and instruments. A solid bass line, often carried by the choral basses, is the foundation of good Baroque music. 

Joining the Phoenix Chorale was an orchestra that might have been a bit underpowered in places, namely upper strings. The chamber ensemble Haagsche Hofmuzieck, having previously played one of the concerts of the 2011 Arizona Bach Festival, joined in the festival orchestra. Two of the Hofmuzieck's four members had prominent solos throughout the Mass, and both were delightful. On his game was Marcin Świątkiewicz at the organ continuo. Most Baroque organ continuo players simply play chords on top of the figured bass notation that is given to them, a phrase that one of my organist friends like to call "chopping cabbage." Mr. Świątkiewicz gave us a delectable entire salad, not only giving us basic block chords but a lyrical and melodic line on top of everything. In fact, his method for tuning the orchestra was fascinating to listen.

What makes or breaks a performance of the Mass in b minor is the conductor's choice of tempi. Scott Alan Youngs, the conductor, picked appropriate tempi. Some of his tempi choices were slightly on the slow side (namely in the first Kyrie eleison); none were too quick. The orchestra, choir, and soloists were responsive to Youngs's tempi, something to be applauded.

Unlike last year, where solo parts went to various members of the Phoenix Chorale, some singers were brought in to complement the Chorale. The exception was David Topping, who not only sings in the Phoenix Chorale, but helped arrange the orchestra's seating, aided in the pre-concert lecture, helped sell tickets, and help to arrange and organize the Arizona Bach Festival. Certainly I would be tired from all that but Mr. Topping was not. All of the soloists performed with a straight and genuine tone devoid of any dramatic operatic elements, something that was certainly enjoyable.

Like last year's performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Central United Methodist Church was a packed house. With two extremely successful Arizona Bach Festivals now in the history books, what will happen for the 2012 edition? It might be about a year away, and already I cannot wait.