musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

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 performance practice?
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)

Relevant links:

Netherlands Chamber Choir

Concert reviews