musica Dei donum
JS Bach: Mass in b (BWV 232)
Heidrun Kordes, soprano; Britta Schwarz, contralto; Andreas
Karasiak, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass
Netherlands Chamber Choir, La Stagione Frankfurt
Dir: Stephen Layton
concert: Utrecht, Dec 19, 2002
Imagine: one of the greatest monuments of musical history is performed, you
have an excellent choir, a very good orchestra, playing on period instruments,
four soloists from the same country as the composer, who have worked with
almost every prominent conductor in the early music scene - one would think
nothing could go wrong there.
Think again. There is always a chance that the conductor doesn't know what he
is doing. Unfortunately that was the case on Thursday, December 19, when Bach's
B-minor Mass was performed at the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht.
I have to admit that I was a little sceptical when I realised that Stephen
Layton was conducting. Once I heard a recording of a performance of Bach's St
John Passion under his direction, which I thought was pretty awful. But one
should give everyone a fair chance. So that's what I tried to do. But
unfortunately he proved that my suspicions were right. Stephen Layton, who
since the start of this year is the conductor of the Netherlands Chamber Choir,
is a specialist in contemporary music. Having heard his interpretation of the
B-minor Mass I conclude that he should stick to that kind of music, and leave
the earlier repertoire to others.
The whole performance was based on legato playing and singing. Apart from the
fact that this is against one of the basic principles of baroque esthetics,
it also indicates a complete ignorance of the rhetorical character of Bach's
music. Right at the start, with the first Kyrie, I knew the whole thing would
go terribly wrong.
The first Kyrie is dominated by the rhetorical figure of the exclamatio,
reflected by continuous leaps upward. The affect which was intended by the
use of this figure can only be achieved if the notes are played non-legato and
the top note is accentuated. By playing it legato the affect goes out of the
window and the whole piece loses its meaning.
Another example of the misunderstanding of Bach's music was the performance of
the 'Crucifixus' from the Credo. During the whole piece the violins play two
minims, followed by a demi-pause. These minims were played pretty strongly,
suggesting the scourging of Jesus. In fact these minims and the pauses
throughout the whole 'Crucifixus' are Seufzer (sighs), which is a
rhetorical gesture (called suspiratio) to express sorrow. They should
be played rather softly, the second one a little louder than the first.
Furthermore: why on earth was the Italian pronunciation of the Latin text used?
What sense does it make to use period instruments, if you ignore the period
There were other flaws in the performance, like a less than ideal balance in
the duet 'Domine Deus' from the Credo between the soprano and tenor and between
both voices and the two flutes, which were too loud. There was too much
difference in the interpretation between the soloists: whereas Heidrun Kordes
and Klaus Mertens were phrasing and articulating very well on the basis of the
text, Britta Schwarz and Andreas Karasiak were singing legato most of the time.
The tenor didn't make any impression anyway, whereas Britta Schwarz at least
delivered a very moving performance of the 'Agnus Dei'. But it was too little
too late to save the night.
Johan van Veen (© 2002)
Netherlands Chamber Choir