November 1, 2023

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists Present Historically-Informed Performance of Bach

By Nancy Plum

McCarter Theatre is well into a season of diverse presentations, including the well-respected Classical Music Series. Last week, two renowned specialist Baroque performing ensembles came to Princeton for an evening of Johann Sebastian Bach. The London-based Monteverdi Choir and its companion English Baroque Soloists orchestra took the stage at Richardson Auditorium last Monday night to perform Bach’s 1749 Mass in B Minor, the 18th-century master’s extended setting of liturgical text.

Completed just a year before Bach’s death, Mass in B Minor was comprised of more than 25 choral movements, solos and duets, and was unique in its time for including the five major sections of the mass text, rather than the customary “Kyrie” and “Gloria.” Likely never performed in Bach’s lifetime, this piece has become one of the composer’s most enduring choral works. It is also one of the most difficult to perform, requiring a great deal of vocal stamina, and is an example of Bach’s innate tendency to write instrumentally, even for the voice.

There are as many ways to perform Bach’s music as there are ensembles worldwide. The evolution of choral societies in the 19th century led to massive choirs singing Bach with large orchestras and Romantic musical effects. The mid-20th century brought a renewed interest in presenting this music in the manner in which the music was originally conceived, an approach especially popular among European performers. The Monteverdi Choir, on the verge of its 60th anniversary, was founded to specialize in historically-inspired projects, with the Choir’s umbrella organization home to the younger but equally as influential English Baroque Soloists period instrumental orchestra. Dinis Sousa, associate conductor of the Monteverdi ensembles, led both the Choir and Baroque Soloists in their presentation of Bach’s towering work last Monday night.

Bach’s Mass is a compendium of musical styles and approaches developed over decades of composition, infused with performance practices of the times. Among the decisions a conductor must make with this piece is the speed of tempos. Especially in the opening “Kyrie eleison,” performers can take a quick tempo appropriate to the 18th century or a slow dramatic pace suitable to the liturgical text. The Monteverdi Choir showed reverence in the opening “Kyrie” by singing from memory with a decisive choral sound and at a relatively quick pace highlighting the instrumental colors.

Conductor Sousa kept the tempos quick throughout — sometimes almost too fast. The coloratura choruses, especially the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” which closed the second section “Gloria,” were played and sung at lightning speed. Although the choristers and instrumentalists were well able to execute the vocal runs, some of these passages were a little nail-biting with the fear that the music would derail. Although technically impressive, the pace did not always serve the liturgical text, but did show the incredible facility and flexibility of the players and singers.

Treatment of solo arias is another variable which offers imaginative opportunities. The Monteverdi Choir soloists all proved to be experts in Baroque performance practice, performing arias without music. Sopranos Hilary Cronin and Bethany Horak-Hallett effortlessly skipped through ornamented lines, both communicating well with the audience and seemingly never having to breathe. Alto Sarah Denbee shone in several duets, well matching each of the sopranos with whom she sang.

Countertenor soloists are not often heard in this piece, but this concert featured American countertenor Reginald Mobley in two elegantly-performed arias. Bach’s altos would have been either boys or men singing in a falsetto range, but solos in the Mass are usually sung these days by a female alto. The choice of a countertenor was refreshing, the range and vocal weight of the music sitting well in Mobley’s voice. He well matched Michael Niesemann’s oboe accompaniment in a “Gloria” aria, and in the closing “Agnus Dei,” was able to convey pathos through smooth maneuvering of the melodic skips and register shifts.

Tenor Nick Pritchard seemed to own the “Benedictus” from the fourth section “Sanctus,” accompanied by flutist Rachel Beckett in graceful unconducted passages expressing comfort. Bass Alex Ashworth commanded an operatic approach to the “Credo” text affirming belief in the Holy Spirit, stylishly accompanied by oboists Niesemann and Mark Baigent.

The true stars of any work such as the Mass in B Minor are the chorus and orchestra, and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists maintained consistently high levels. A continuo section of cellist Kinga Gáborjáni, double bassist Valerie Botwright, organist Oliver John Ruthven, and harpsichordist Benedict Williams provided a solid foundation to the vocal music. Concertmistress Kati Debretzeni played lyrical solo lines in several movements and a trio of Baroque trumpets added majesty to the choruses giving praise. Anneke Scott, performing on a valveless horn, crisply accompanied bass Frederick Long in a solid presentation of an aria in the “Gloria” section.

Bach’s complex work is both glorious and reverent, and is monumental for both performers and listeners. In a promotional video for this tour, a Monteverdi Choir singer advised the audience to “be prepared to be taken on a journey and just listen to beautiful music.” The full house at Richardson Auditorium last Monday night would no doubt agree.