Sunday, March 27, 2011

Put It in H!

So I have a hard time describing Bach's B Minor Mass. The Bach Collegium Japan has been touring the U.S. with it this month, under their dapper and extraordinarily distinguished-looking conductor Masaaki Suzuki, and they stopped in New Haven Saturday night. I went with Maddie and with my friends Kate and Alex, following dinner at my apartment. Maddie & I cooked vegan dinner — pesto pasta with sauteed veggies, butternut squash soup, bread from the machine — and Kate & Alex brought me a second birthday cake.

The Collegium's tour has obviously come at a poignant time, just post-tsunami, and the sacred music institute here turned the performance into a Red Cross fundraiser. The B Minor Mass is formal and affirmative enough to seem to stand aside from earthly tragedy. It's a humane and fairly all-embracing work, and in a memorial context it maybe stands as a signpost for shared humanity.

Woolsey Hall's famously muddy acoustics don't particularly suit a baroque vocal mass, but up in the second balcony the sound was pleasing enough. You couldn't hear much of the choral counterpoint, which melted into a luminous mush. That's a big loss in Bach, but it doesn't interrupt the emotional and dramatic swell. And the lightly scored passages sounded fine. (They performed, incidentally, with a chorus of about 20 people, plus the 5 vocal soloists, and an orchestra of something like 10 strings, 10 of those wonderful period brass & woodwinds that are like heirloom tomatoes, an enthusiastic timpanist with two drums, plus chamber organ and harpsichord.)

Compositionally, the Mass is, you know, regarded as one of the towering achievements of European art, and I'm intimidated away from trying so say anything really cogent about it. In fact, I haven't really even listened to it much in recorded form, since I feel like doing it justice would require more attention than I tend to give my casual listening.

I can say that it's a much more expressively rich work than I was somehow expecting, certainly thanks in large part to the Collegium's expressive performance. (I don't have anything like the Baroque chops to describe their interpretation, but it felt true, while being frankly expressive. I think what you want for this piece isn't far off from what you want in a good Mozart Requiem, or for that matter the Frank Martin Mass for Double Choir.) Suzuki is a fun conductor to watch, too, efficient in his gestures but urgent when the music becomes more urgent.

None of the following represents a particularly nuanced commentary, but here goes. Bach's opening Kyrie Eleison is a somber choral fugue that extends luxuriously beyond the length of time you think it will last. There are exultant movements where the trumpets and timpani come in to underline a thumping kind of "happy Baroque" sound familiar from Sunday-morning NPR. My favorite of these is the "Et resurrexit" following a moody, plaintively chromatic "Crucifixus": Hey, Jesus is risen! This is great! The bass soloist's scene was stolen, to my ears, by the guy playing a two-looped baroque horn, adroitly lipping his way around his quietly dangerous decorative garlands. One of the most surprisingly moving passages sets the perfunctory-sounding Credo text "I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins." The line "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum" both pleases me in its major-key joyfulness and reminds part of my brain what it's like trying to play E-flat clarinet in a staggeringly difficult Messiaen wind-orchestra piece. The "Sanctus" is just magnificently stately. I forget which quiet movement the countertenor sang so exquisitely, but he netted an extra-large ovation at the end for it.

I really should read about the work, and listen to it closely, and try to get to know it. I think hearing it in concert needs to happen first. Maybe I'm accepting a kind of mythology about the piece, but it feels like it expresses a platonic excellence or exquisiteness.

As much as people talk about Bach's mastery of counterpoint and musical argument, it's his great control of emotional ebb and flow that makes him who he is. (Compare Monteverdi or Palestrina, earlier masters of less immediately moving contrapuntal musical languages.) And you can "get" that without following the fugal patterns. And that too helps embrace a wide world of listeners.


Anonymous Dan Blim said...

I heard them do it in Ann Arbor, and thought it was great. It probably helped that Hill has tremendous acoustics, and I had a second row, almost exactly center seat. But the balance and togetherness was superb in the performance I saw, and the work sits right at the top of my own personal best pieces list. The brass players and the countertenor steal the show, admittedly, but everything about it was solid and affecting.

4/01/2011 4:51 PM  

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