It’s an odd thing for a Lutheran church composer to compose a Roman Catholic Mass, and it raises eyebrows to this day. While it was perfectly normal for a Lutheran composer to use the opening Kyrie and Gloria movements of a Catholic Mass, the question remains as to why he wrote the unabridged Catholic Mass?
I would assert his reasons were entirely creative, in that he simply wanted to explore the Catholic style, and also perhaps contribute to the musical genre, which in the 18th century was the grandest form apart from opera.
Bach had an unmatched talent for creating seamless flows of complex counterpoint and harmony, which transcended form and structure in dizzying ways. He wrote the B minor Mass in short spurts spanning twenty-five years. Many of the sections were shaped from previous works, which were repurposed to suit the deeply spiritual context. It was also one of his last works, and at just over two hours long, the largest after his organ mass Clavier-Übung III.
Fast-forward 265 years, and we now have what is regarded as one of the most revered and astonishing musical compositions ever created.
There seem to be two main approaches to presenting Bach’s colossal mass. The first is to serve it up in the grand style like a prevue of the Heavenly Host, where the opulence of sound knocks you to your knees, in a reverent amen! The second is to hold back, and present a more restrained advance. Due to the fact that in Bach’s day, small choirs were the norm, purists would argue towards the second approach. Nevertheless, as with any Bach Mass, there is always a certain threshold that a choir and orchestra must commit to before performing it. It is not enough just to collect, prepare, rehearse, and present the work. It requires a deeply thoughtful consideration for the function that this music is designed to play.
After hearing the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and Artistic Director Noel Edison last Wednesday night, it was a mixed success. It was a nuanced approach, with a special focus upon subtlety and the withholding certain melodic passages that Edison felt needed to whisper rather than call out. At other times, Edison didn’t hesitate to push the choir forth and allow it to chime like carillon bells over the streets of Bach’s mid-eighteenth-century Leipzig.
From the stabbing consonants of its Kyrie, through the stirring syncopation of its Credo, Edison did a fine job of maintaining a singular thread uniting the work.
In general, the orchestra came across as somewhat timid with the large choir at its back, and perhaps a fuller compliment was needed to hold its own.
The vocal work was very appealing and featured sopranos Jennifer Taverner and Lesley Bouza, mezzo Jennifer Enns Modolo, tenor Isaiah Bell, and Baritone Michael York. I especially liked the final tenor solo “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini”, sung by Victoria, BC native Isaiah Bell. His vocal tone was something to behold.
Notwithstanding the very successful solo sections, the vocal duets between Taverner and Bell in the Domine Deus of the Gloria, and between Modolo and Taverner in the Et in unum Dominum of the Credo seemed uneven. Perhaps it was just a mater of the vocal tones not coming together as well as they could have.
Some sections that could have been tighter as well, especially in the Credo’s opening chorus, which seemed to lose its momentum from time to time. But at the same time, I was absolutely taken in the especially jubilant Cum Santo and an utterly heart-stopping entrance to the Qui Tollis of the Gloria.
Despite some of its flaws, it was a lovely way to spend an evening in a packed Koerner Hall, with one of the worlds finest Choirs.