Bach: B Minor Mass

Local Arts Reviews

Bach: 'B Minor Mass': Consummate Care

St. Martin's Lutheran Church, Sept. 26

Conspirare's performance of Bach's B Minor Mass amazed and moved, but first it perplexed.

As with director Craig Hella Johnson's 1997 interpretation, the very slow tempo and hy-per-ar-tic-u-lat-ed diction in the opening "Kyrie" made a puzzling first impression. The pace and diction helped you keep it all straight as the music proceeded into the thick polyphony, but the willfulness grabbed your attention.

You expect the performance to be as idiosyncratic throughout, but, although he favored slow tempi and a pronounced emphasis on textural changes, Johnson soon shrugged off the exaggerated diction. At first I thought it was a rehearsal technique that didn't get set aside, but since his 1997 performance began this way, he must have meant it. Perhaps the double-spaced, large-print rendering was meant to seem like the first page of an illuminated manuscript. In any case, Johnson wanted to make sure these words that are the voice of the congregation, "Christ have mercy upon us," were heard clearly.

Conspirare can do anything, not just in terms of communicating sonorous beauty, but in delivering well-placed, carefully planned emotional punches. The somber "Crucifixus" brought to mind the sustained sorrow of the choir's performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and the work's high point was when the gray clouds of the Crucifixus parted for a brilliantly joyous "Et Resurrexit." Johnson made sure we felt its full brunt.

The soloists stepped out of the choir only for the solos and duets, all rendered with a spare beauty. Especially effective was the "Agnus Dei" in which the vocal purity of alto Janet Carlsen Campbell intertwined perfectly with the orchestra in this reflection on the sacrifice.

The orchestra sounded nearly as beautiful as the choir, well blended and balanced and carrying the sense of the text when the choir was at rest. In the "Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi," the consoling flurry of woodwinds soothed the plangent vocal harmonies. In the second half, though, the relentless physical demands brought out signs of fatigue. One is prepared to forgive trumpet players for a few clams over the course of this two-hour work, but their performance was spotless, giving an especially optimistic thrill to the "Et Expecto Resurrectionem."

Even when the text was not so clear, as in the opening measures, Johnson and the musicians brought consummate care to the liturgy throughout. The cumulative effect was potent in the final "Dona Nobis Pacem," for which Bach entrusted three minutes of his best music to three words "Grant us peace."


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Conspirare, Bach: B Minor Mass, Craig Hella Johnson, Janet Carlsen Campbell

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