Sunday, July 01, 2012

The First Church of Bach

The story goes that at the end of his life J.S. Bach had been working on The Art of the Fugue, which was to be his definitive treatise on the compositional form he raised to a higher state of perfection than any composer before or since. But knowing his time was limited, he set this work aside in order to put the finishing touches on his great Mass in B minor. Apparently it was so important to him to get
this right that he even used colored inks and drafting instruments to make the manuscript as clear as possible. The result is that his final testament is a deeply emotional religious work rather than the secular and more coolly detached set of fugues, which is perfectly appropriate in view of his habit of inscribing "to the glory of God" at the top of his compositions.

While those of us who admire his fugues will forever fret over what might have been had he been able to finish both of these monumental projects, we can be grateful that at least the Mass is complete. Though it may never have been performed in its final form while Bach was alive, we have made up for that since. Modern music afficionados have a plethora of recordings to choose from, and it is widely performed around the world. My own current favorite is by the Dunedin Ensemble, which uses a very small group of vocal soloists to bring unusual clarity and emotive power to the different voices.

Recently, in the company of a few friends -- and about 750 others -- we got to hear it done by Miami's Seraphic Fire ensemble. This was actually the second time we've heard them tackle this work, since one of their first concerts years ago was the same Mass. The only flaw in that first performance was the venue: a gargantuan Catholic church that somewhat swallowed the sound of the small, Baroque-sized group of performers. This time it was in the more intimate First United Methodist church in Coral Gables, the lofty ceiling of which allowed the music to breathe without becoming entirely lost in space.

I've been accused of not being critical enough of performances where I'm fond of the work being performed, so let me say at the beginning that this one was not entirely without flaws. One of the male vocal soloists did sound somewhat lost, without the ability to fill the hall. And in the later movements there was a recurring intonation problem in the upper strings that was atypical of the normally polished standards of the Firebird Orchestra.

I was further disappointed that the Agnus Dei near the end, which is generally recorded with a counter-tenor singing the role, was performed instead by the alto. She did a creditable job, although her style with its warbling tremolo is, to my ear, more suited to operatic works than to Baroque oratorio, where a clear and pure tone brings out the harmony with the instrumental accompaniment.

This gives a segue to what was commendable in the performance. One of the standouts was the counter-tenor (yes, they had one), a young man named Reggie Mobley who unbelievably started out his career by singing baritone before moving up (literally) to tenor and then alto. His ability to project this nearly-falsetto male voice throughout the hall was equalled by his perfect timing and nuances of expression. His two duets were marvels of perfectly pitched and balanced harmony, in which neither voice overpowered the other. All the more reason for me to anticipate what he would do with the Agnus Dei, and the greater my disappointment when I realized he would not be doing it.

But let's set that aside and continue the compliments. All the instrumental soloists were wonderful -- the flute, both oboes, violin, trumpet, horn -- am I leaving anyone out? -- you too, bassoon. The Firebird uses modern instruments, not antique ones, but I have to think Bach himself would be happy with them. After all, in his day he pushed for the adoption of equal-temperament for keyboard tuning, and was interested in the latest and greatest harpsichords. Surely if he were with us now he would want to take advantage of such modern conveniences as nylon "quills" in his instrument, which last so much longer than the ones made from bird feathers in ages past.

Director Quigley was absent at the Grammy Awards (alas, they didn't win), but his touch was evident in the interesting staging. The small chorus, including soloists, shared the space with the orchestra, and the choreography of bringing the soloists to center stage, while the chorus stood or sat, was done with a minimal amount of interruption to the musical flow. Also interesting was the placement of the timpani at stage front, rather than in the normal rear -- a fact that gave them additional punch.

So, all in all, a wonderful and devotional evening. Another thing said about Bach's great mass (he also wrote some shorter ones) is that it contains a giant anomoly, being sung in Latin, like the Catholic mass, but following the form of the Lutheran one, making it suitable for neither of them. Or, you might say, for both. But I think it's really for the First Church of J.S. Bach, and we are all allowed to become members.

No comments:

Post a Comment