Tonight I heard the first of five performances to be given of JS Bach’s Mass in B Minor by Tafelmusik (four at Jeanne Lamon Hall in Trinity St Paul’s Centre, April 5-8 inclusive, and one more at the George Weston Recital Hall on the 10th).
It’s not the fastest nor the slowest you’d ever hear. But it’s remarkably meaningful, intelligible, music and words connected.
Ivars Taurins offers his usual thorough scholarly exploration of the score, leading the orchestra & their chamber choir. I’d like to think we were hearing something that JS Bach might have enjoyed had he been there in the church space to hear and see. A generation or two ago, one would encounter something bigger and fatter, both in the choral forces and especially in the orchestration, and usually at a glacial pace. Sometimes the leaner meaner approach of a historically accurate performance style –like the one often favored by Tafelmusik–can get so quick as to lose touch with the text being expressed. While I love those big climaxes as much as the next person, they can be achieved with a moderate sized ensemble raising the roof in a lovely little space, such as what we heard on this occasion.
Tonight’s was just right.
The five soloists gave us excellent work. I was especially moved by the simplicity of tenor Charles Daniels, who showed me how this should be sung, Bach being one of the most difficult composers to sing right. He made it look easy, but I don’t want to underestimate what he accomplished, a deceptive ease that is the product of great artistry. Daniels floated up to the high notes, sometimes very delicate, sometimes forthright, but never pushing, and always perfectly in tune & matching the text being expressed. He is a genuine student of the work, immersed in the score all night except when he had to come forward to sing. Less is more.
Laura Pudwell’s colour shone brightly without ever going beyond a mezzo-forte , the picture of restraint and elegance in her fluid delivery.
Soprano Dorothee Mields is new to me, but I enjoyed watching her both in her solo work or when she gazed about her enthusiastically at the chorus and orchestra at work.
Baritone Tyler Duncan brought his burnished sound, especially effective in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”, a solo aria where his low voice, accompanied by the lower orchestral sounds (string bass, bassoon, horn) remarks that Jesus only is the most high, a moment of wonderful humanity.
But the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir were the real stars, especially in the second part of the program, when the fireworks really happen. In the “Symbolum Nicenum”, we get the parts of the Nicene Creed. It’s one thing to speak this solemnly in church, but Bach dramatizes this profession of faith, so that we’re given a miniature Biblical epic, complete with Jesus’s birth, crucifixion, death, and glorious resurrection.
At the apt moments the chorus and orchestra erupt in celebratory glory. Coming at the climax of the Christian Year, Bach’s Mass is an overwhelming experience, with a proper focus on the text and its meaning, rather than virtuosity and display for its own sake.
And I think JS would have approved.