Saturday, 13 August 2022

Scaling Bach’s sublime choral peak is no minor achievement

TO quote Fritz Volbach

TO quote Fritz Volbach: “The B Minor Mass soars above like some huge, primitive mountain rock. Its summit is lost in the clouds, in an infinity of sunlit blue. Lonely and sublime, it is unapproachable by any other music.”

That is a daunting statement to live up to on a cold night in the vastness of Dorchester Abbey, but the Benson Choral Society accepted the challenge with gusto.

Together with four excellent soloists and the talented Elgar Orchestra, the choir gave a very warm and well-rehearsed performance of Bach’s awesome

B Minor Mass
to a large and appreciative audience.

At the outset the choir established an atmosphere of serenity with clear diction and fine phrasing. Later, their

was an explosion of pure joy. They were particularly responsive in reaching the depths of despair in the suffering of the

and the heights of elation in the following

Et resurrexit
. A wonderful contrast.

The four vocal soloists sang impeccably throughout, well matched, not just in balance of sound but also in their giving consistent mutual attention to the finer details of Baroque interpretation.

The vocal highlight of the evening had to be Susan Legg’s transcending

Agnus Dei
— the purest of sounds and long phrases delivered apparently effortlessly. When did she breathe? When did we?

The Elgar Orchestra, playing on modern instruments, did well in matching closely the sound qualities intended by Bach in his choice of instrumentation. The three trumpets — small-bore, valved instruments — had a bell-like quality and provided accuracy of pitch that is hard to achieve consistently on more primitive Baroque instruments.

The deliciously mellifluous oboe d’amore provided the perfect accompaniment to Quentin Hayes’ strongly delivered bass aria in the

Et in Spiritum Sanctum

Helen Meyerhoff and Andrew Mackenzie Wicks, in their beautifully interleaved duet,

Domine Deus
, were paired with two flutes that contrived to play the brilliant solo flute part together without breaks for taking breath.

Playing alternate phrases they sounded as one instrument, joining their contributions seamlessly from beginning to end. Perfection!

However, the use of a modern French horn to play the part scored by Bach for a hunting horn fell short of expectations. The part was played impeccably, but inevitably the more strident, bucolic sound of a genuine corno da caccia was missing.

Underpinning the entire ensemble was a small but effective body of strings, two bubbly bassoons and a chamber organ continuo played by Jeremy Boughton.

The orchestra was led confidently by Ron Colyer, who also tossed off the complex and exacting violin solo in the the

Laudamus Te
with great panache.

Bach gives few indications of tempi in his score. It is left largely to the conductor to determine. Christopher Walker was wonderfully consistent in choosing and delivering tempi to suit the mood of each movement. His intimate knowledge of the work and clear direction gave us a very satisfying performance to savour.

John Burleigh

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