By Truman C. Wang
2017 has been a good year for J.S. Bach in the flurry of recordings from violinist Rachel Podger, pianist Angela Hewitt (Art of the Fugue), John Butt (The “Magnificat”), Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan (the church cantatas) and, last but not least, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s second take on the B-minor Mass thirty years after his legendary first recording for Deutsche Gramophone.
What’s old is new again, if not in actual materials, at least in the conception and execution. Bach himself compiled the Mass in 1749 from his own earlier works of different styles – the Kyrie and Gloria were from 1733, while the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were added in 1740’s. The ‘Confiteor’ was one of the few all-new pieces written for the Mass. The great thing about this mix-and-match potpourri is the complete organic feel of the final product, with not a section or a note out of place, musically and stylistically. In last night’s concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Gaechinger Cantorey (formerly ‘Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart’) took Bach’s 268-year-old mass and breathed a fresh new life into it with a vibrant, dramatic and intensely spiritual reading.
The Cantorey’s 31-member choir and 30-player Baroque orchestra were the perfect size to convey the work’s grandeur without sacrificing the agility and clarity in the 4- and 5-part choruses. This was in distinct contrast to the old-fashioned English choral society approach on the one hand, and the minimalist ‘madrigal’ approach on the other.
Conducting with evangelical fervor, the Akademie Director Hans-Christoph Rademann brought out the operatic drama in this ostensibly liturgical work (Bach was an avid opera lover who once walked miles to hear a Handel opera), allowing the dramatic narrative thread of the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ to unfold in the telling of the life of Christ. Unforgettable was the eerily hushed, chromatic transition passage leading from the ‘Confiteor’ to the trumpet-filled burst of joy in ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem’ and on the words “I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins”. Adding to the drama was the superb choir of great virtuoso agility in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, and great clarity of lines in ‘Kyrie II’ and ‘Confiteor’.
Also impressive was Mr. Rademann’s emphasis of Bach’s dance rhythms, often infectiously so. ‘Et resurrexit’ was like a fast polonaise; ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ was slow minuet with a wonderful beat; ‘Osanna’ was a tarantella of no less charm; and so on. The clarity of large choruses meant all the contrapuntal lines were dancing over and with one another in total harmony.
A strong line-up of soloists and orchestral players made the arias and duets memorable. Contralto Roxana Constantinescu sang 'Laudamus te', 'Qui sedes' and ‘Agnus Dei’ with gorgeous tones, complemented by Mayumi Hirasaki’s heartfelt violin obbligato. Bass Peter Harvey gave a compelling ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ with even more compelling horn obbligato by Ulrich Huebner. Tenor Jakob Pilgram and soprano Regula Mühlemann excelled in the ‘Domine Deus’ duet with sublime contributions from Georges Barthel’s flute. Tenor Benedikt Kristjansson’s angelic ‘Benedictus’ was lifted even higher by Mr. Barthel’s golden flute.
If you missed this superb Baroque ensemble from Stuttgart, you have another chance to hear them in O.C. Wednesday night performing Bach’s St. John Passion, or buy their excellent B-Minor Mass CD recorded in 2015.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.