November 23, 2022

Renowned Bach Chorus and Orchestra Perform in Princeton

By Nancy Plum

A rare musical gem came to Princeton last week when McCarter Theatre presented an international touring choral/orchestral ensemble. The Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart is a foundation established in 1981 to research and perform the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and connect it to musical composition of today. Despite the focus on Bach, the organization has commissioned numerous works inspired by or rooted in the compositional style of the 18th-century master and has been recognized for its international collaboration. The Bachakademie houses the Gächinger Kantorei chorus and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart orchestra, and both of these ensembles came to McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theater last Wednesday night to perform Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor. Conducted by Bachakademie Artistic Director Hans-Christoph Rademann, the concert presented a work which has challenged choral ensembles for more than 250 years. 

Bach’s responsibilities as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig in the early 1700s required him to churn out service music at a seemingly unfathomable rate. In the last decade of his life, Bach began to expand a previously composed “Kyrie” and “Gloria” work into what became the Mass in B minor by adding a “Credo,” “Sanctus,” and “Agnus Dei” from music composed over a 25-year period. Bach completed the mass in 1749, but this work was not performed as a concert piece until the mid-1800s, more than a century after Bach’s death.

The Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium performed the Mass in B minor drawing the soloists from the chorus, as would have been done in Bach’s time, and assigning some of the extended coloratura choral passages to solo concertists. Under Rademann’s direction, the performance brought together a clean and precise chorus and orchestra with four historically-informed and technically accurate vocal soloists. 

The “Kyrie” and “Gloria” of Bach’s Mass were derived from the composer’s 1733 Missa Brevis. The 20-voice chorus of the Bachakademie began the tripartite “Kyrie” with solo concertists, adding singers as the movement progressed to a full choral sound through “terraced” dynamics. Pairs of Baroque oboes and flutes clearly brought out Bach’s counterpoint over a solid continuo foundation of cello, double bass, theorbo and portative organ. The “Christe eleison” featured soprano Magdalene Harer and alto Marie Henriette Reinhold in a well-blended duet, with Reinhold maneuvering well the lower passages of the music. Conducting from memory, Rademann built a well-paced and dramatic arc through the “Kyrie” movement, effectively capturing the humility of the text. 

The four major sections of the Mass in B minor are comprised of alternating choruses and vocal solos and duets. The work is often performed with six soloists; the bass solos in particular cover such a wide vocal range that both a bass and baritone are employed. Bass Tobias Berndt showed particular richness in the lower passages of “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus,” with cleanly articulated runs. Berndt also found a lyrical style in a later section of the “Credo,” gracefully accompanied by a pair of well-tuned Baroque oboes. 

Alto Reinhold may have been the stand-out member of the vocal quartet, crisply and effortlessly conveying both creative ornamentation in “Laudamus Te” and the pathos and vocal weight of the closing “Agnus Dei.” This was a true Viennese mezzo-soprano sound perfectly suited for music of this time period. Soprano Harer consistently sang stylistically with little vibrato and with pure tone. Tenor Benedikt Kristjansson rounded out the quartet, singing with a light and clear sound.

The members of the accompanying orchestra were unfortunately unidentified, but the ensemble uniformly paid clear attention to dynamics and accurate musical details. Bach assigned arias in this work to particular soloists accompanied by specific instruments matching the timbre of the solo voice; an oboe soloist tended to be matched with the alto, flute with soprano. Bass Tobias Berndt was accompanied in the final solo of the “Gloria” by a valveless horn with which the player was required to modulate the sound by changing the breath or mouth position. The accompanying horn solo to this aria was devilish in its intervallic skips, but the Bachakademie players were all up to the challenges of their instruments. 

Conductor Rademann’s tempi were quick and spirited, and the 20-voice chorus well handled the vocal runs within the choral sections. Rademann had trained both chorus and orchestra in 18th-century performance phrasing and dynamic techniques requiring great precision so as not to unravel, and both ensembles were expert in maintaining a historically-informed performance holding the audience’s attention until the final note. McCarter’s presentation last Wednesday night not only entertained the audience with high-quality performance but also gave a glimpse into what musical life might have been like in Bach’s time.