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Friday, March 15, 2013

Concert Review: The Breadth of God

The New York Philharmonic plays Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alan Gilbert. Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.
On Wednesday night, New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert demonstrated that his skill with dramatic and choral music extends to the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This was the first of four performances this week of the Mass in B Minor, Bach’s final completed composition and the summit of his career as a creator of sacred music. These concerts are the anchor event of the orchestra’s ongoing festival, The Bach Variations.

This was Bach’s last completed work, a stylistically diverse setting of the Catholic liturgy. Its composition was a lengthy process, spanning the last 35 yearsof his life. Bach wrote the earliest sections (the Sanctus, Kyrie and Gloria) for church festivals. By the time the work was completed in 1749, they had become the the musical seeds from which the entire Mass sprung. (It is significant that the end of the Gloria reappears in the Dona nobis pacem.) Bach did not live to hear it performed.

It is not certain why Bach, (a lifelong Lutheran) decided to write a giant setting of the Catholic liturgy (It may have had something to do with his attempts to gain a post as the court composer to the Elector of Saxony.) The sheer size of this Mass inflates the church service to two hours. This expansive format may have been intended as a teaching tool, which might account for the wide variety of combinations of voices and instruments employed.

Bach divides each large part of the liturgy into shorter segments, exploring the multiple options available for each syllable, word or phrase. Where later composers might set one section of the mass as a chorus and another as an aria with continuo, Bach sets different lines of the text to different combinations. For example, the section of the Symbolum Niceum (Credo) describing the Holy Spirit is a lengthy declamation for bass singer, solo horn and continuo. The acknowledgment of baptism that follows is a wondrous, lucid passage for full chorus.

The first descending intervals of the Kyrie lacked the sheer kinetic force heard in some interpretations of this work. But Mr. Gilbert  found his footing with the Gloria that followed. Throughout, he switched continually from leading vast choral forces to managing small instrumental and vocal ensembles with the Philharmonic players serving as an impressive group of soloists. Of particular note, the oboe d’amore playing of Sherry Sylar and the complex fugue on Cum Sanctu Spiritu which brought this part of the work to a starry climax.

This performance featured four vocal soloists. Three of them: soprano Dorothea Roschmann, mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter and bass Eric Owens are well known to New York concert-goers. The fourth, tenor Steve Davislim had a pliant tone and a sense of period style, particularly in duet with Ms. Roschmann. Ms. von Otter remains adroit at molding a vocal line, but the gleam has vanished from her once-bright voice. Mr. Owens, on furlough from his usual duties in Nibelheim seemed pleased to thunder out his arias,especially in the .

This was the first Philharmonic performance of the Mass in B Minor  since Kurt Masur led the work in 1996. Despite that long gap, all of the involved players demonstrated their skill and familiarity with this material, and a profound commitment to Bach’s musical purpose. Whether in the golden call of Philip Myers’ horn or the steady, compassionate sound of Carter Brey’s cello, this was the kind of performance that showed everything good about this orchestra. The New York Choral Artists were also exceptional, turning four-, five- and even eight-part fugues with passion and precision,
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.