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Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON April 7th 2018
Last night's performance of the Bach B minor Mass by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir conducted by Ivars Taurins at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre was amazing to say the least.
The first time I thought seriously about how Bach's B minor Mass ought to be performed came in 1980 at a conference in Boston when the brilliant Joshua Rifkin argued that only four or eight singers were needed. His opponent thought it needed eight or twelve. Throughout the fight both based their opinions on Bach's complaints to the Leipzig town council over the lack of resources. I reflected that I had sung the work in a choir of 100. Rifkin's performance was advertised as the world premiere (as continuo player, tonight organist, Charlotte Nediger remarks in her informative program notes, most people believe the mass was not performed as a whole in the composer's lifetime); doubters called his performance the premiere of Bach’s B-flat minor Madrigal.
I had the privilege of speaking with soprano Michele DeBoer just before tonight's sold-out performance. I asked her what vocal qualities are needed for early music performance, and she said the ability to sing with and without vibrato, because vibrato must be a special choice, not used throughout (it is an excellent answer). Her favourite part of the mass? I thought she might name one of the choruses, maybe the Hosanna or Et resurrexit (dare I admit that, as I stared at the huge organ pipes, I wondered if they could be reconnected so that we could hear Nediger pull out all the stops, including the thirty-two foot long pipe, for the big choruses?). No, she said that the solos and duets are all so compelling that she listens attentively to every one, and in the end she answered the Benedictus, which was accompanied tonight by the beautiful playing of flautist Sandra Miller.
I ventured one more question, asking if DeBoer had ever sung the mass in a large choir. She had, in a romantic performance conducted by Helmut Rilling with sixty singers and large orchestra. Tonight there was a choir of 22 plus five soloists, alto Richard Whitall’s performance standing out above the other four for his period vocal qualities, and consequently the truthfulness of his expression.
Baroque music is difficult to perform even for an ensemble of the stature of Tafelmusik. When we introduce modern elements we create complications. The mass would have been directed from the organ by Bach himself. No separate conductor intervened. All instruments would have tuned to the organ directly, not, as in modern practice, first the oboe to the organ, the concert master to the oboe, then the orchestra to the concert master. As a piece of musical hardware, the baroque oboe is notoriously fickle and untrustworthy. When one follows the modern practice, even with an oboist as highly skilled as John Abberger (whose solo performances were moving), there can arise an almost imperceptible discrepancy in tuning with the organ. That discrepancy can be magnified between oboe and concertmaster, and again between concert master and orchestra, and the ensemble runs the risk of being out of tune (not to mention the problem of temperature changes). At intermission the portative organ was retuned, then the orchestra tuned each section deliberately and carefully to the organ. Now precisely in tune, the co-ordination between orchestra and choir was spot on.
Conductor Ivars Torins
Photo Credit: Sian Richards
The brass was impressive, the intonation true, all notes and ornaments well executed, even at the very fast tempi that conductor Ivars Taurins preferred (I liked the rhythmic energy he found, but I would have preferred that the music Bach borrowed from himself in the mass be performed closer to the tempi of the cantatas and passions from which it was taken, so that I could enjoy the borrowings). Scott Wevers, with his horn complete with a crook to change the key, played very well, and Kathryn Adduci played the trumpet virtuosically (what lip trills!).
What is the right size for the chorus and are Bach’s letters of complaint the best evidence? I remember writing letters to my administrators, describing the need for more resources—if you were my administrator, kindly stop reading now—and it is just possible that I exaggerated the problems a very little bit. For me a large choir obscures the colours and textures of the individual instruments, a key feature of baroque music. On the other hand Rifkin’s minimal choir did not satisfy me because there was not enough difference between soloists and chorus (another key feature). I think that last night's performance by Tafelmusik had just the right size for the chorus and orchestra—the individual timbres and textures remained distinct, and the contrast between soloists and chorus was clear.
Could Bach have resisted getting his musicians together and performing this mass? Well, his predecessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau, wrote something that may pertain. He found that the congregation paid closer attention to the singing in Latin, during Lent, than to singing in German. We know that Lutherans of this time performed the Kyrie and Gloria. The former is in Greek. Did Kuhnau mean only the Gloria? Then why not say so? I think that the entire Latin mass ordinary was performed sometimes during Lent in protestant churches with sufficient musical resources.
The performance of the chorus was excellent throughout. Overall it was a wonderful evening!
This not-to-be-missed concert will be repeated at 8pm on Saturday April 7th 2018 and at 3:30pm on Sunday April 8th 2018 at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre as well as at 8pm on Tuesday April 12th 2018 at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts. Call ahead as tickets are in high demand.
Next up for Tafelmusik will be Close Encounters...in Vienna and Madrid, as part of its chamber music series at 2pm on Saturday April 21st 2018 in Temerty Theatre at The TELUS Centre and at 11am on Wednesday April 25th 2018 at Heliconian Hall.
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir directed by Ivars Taurins
Photo credit: Trevor Haldenby
Tafelmusik, Bach B minor Mass: How much mass for the Mass?