Sunday, February 10, 2013

“This Trifling Proof” – Bach’s Mass in B minor is Headed Your Way

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and ASO Chamber Chorus will join forces under Maestro Robert Spano later this month for a complete performance of Bach’s masterwork, the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). The soloists will include some faces familiar to Atlanta – wonderful artists that have sung with us in a range of repertoire, such as Celena Shafer, Thomas Cooley, and Stephen Powell. Full details on the performances, as well as links to the artists’ websites, are at:
Performances are 8:00 p.m. Thursday, 28 February and Friday, 1 March in Symphony Hall. There will also be a free pre-concert talk in Symphony Hall at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday. Check your e-mail – you may find there a discount that applies to you! At the time of this post, the main orchestra appears well sold for both nights, but there are plenty of cheap seats left in the balconies – and I might suggest that the top balcony is not a bad place for this work in this hall. I was pleased to see in Ken Meltzer’s program notes (posted at the ASO site), that the Mass will be performed without intermission. At nearly two hours, some advance planning may be needed (it certainly will be for those of us on stage!), but the full realization of this work as both a religious and musical experience begs for a continuous performance unbroken by the noise and distractions of an intermission.
This gargantuan composition, assembled from components perfected over the last half of his life, contains some of Bach’s most sublime vocal writing. As with many complex works, it is helpful to have some background going in to the concert. Drawing on extensive personal and professional experience with Bach’s works, ASO Choral Administrator Jeffrey Baxter has written several intriguing essays on the Mass which are publicly accessible at:
Many fine recordings of the Mass in B minor have been made, beginning in the 1950’s and spanning the range of Bach performance styles. The ASO recorded the Mass under Robert Shaw in 1990 and this recording is still available on CD; an MP3 does not seem to be currently available. However, Mr. Shaw’s 1960 RCA Victor recording (with Florence Kopleff among others) is remastered and available as an MP3 download. If you enjoy the full-blooded Bach style of the 1960’s, the reigning Bach maestro of those times, Karl Richter, is well represented with an epochal 1961 recording (including Fischer-Dieskau in his prime) as well as a live performance captured on video and now available on DVD. Other recordings you may wish to consider if you prefer a more “historically-informed" approach are Peter Schreier with the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig, Philippe Herreweghe with Collegium Vocale Ghent or John Eliot Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. All three of these performances provide more recent interpretations using period instruments, and all are available in MP3 format.
Ken Meltzer’s notes quote a letter also cited by composer Hubert Parry in his early 20th century study of J.S. Bach, although the translation is slightly different. Bach wrote this letter when he submitted the Kyrie and Gloria (the first half of the Mass as we know it today) to the Elector of Saxony in a quest for improved circumstances (i.e. a new job with a raise). Although not bashful about stating his financial reasons for looking for new employment, Bach opens by saying “I lay before your kingly Majesty this trifling proof of the science which I have been able to acquire in music…”.
Parry goes on to call the Mass “the mightiest choral work ever written.” Although that assessment is now a century old, most musicians still not only concur with Parry, they would go further to agree that the Mass in B minor is one of the mightiest works ever created in any art form.
Come hear for yourself – see you in Symphony Hall!

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