Arts & Events

All Dressed Up and No Place to Go: Bach’s B-Minor Mass

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday August 12, 2019 - 01:25:00 PM

In 1749, at the end of his long, creative life, Johann Sebastian Bach assembled bits and pieces of music he’d written many years earlier, added a few new bits, and, voilà, there was his Mass in B-Minor. Bach seems not to have written this setting of the Latin Mass for any commission or performance. Indeed, the B-Minor Mass was not performed in the remaining months of Bach’s life. So why did he, a devout Lutheran, compose this Catholic mass? The answer seems to be that Bach, who revered his musical heritage, knew the traditional importance attached to settings of the Latin mass, and decided he too ought to show he could excel in this time-honoured genre. And excel he did! Today, Bach’s B-Minor Mass is considered a lasting testament to his art. 

I first heard Bach’s B-Minor Mass in late 1969 or early 1970 in Paris’s Église St. Séverin in the Latin Quarter. The performance, as I recall, was by the Roger Wagner Chorale. Under the Flamboyant Gothic vaulting, Bach’s contrapuntal music made a grand impression. Indeed, it seemed the perfect counterpoint to the Gothic architecture of that church. If when he wrote this work, it was all dressed up with no place to go, ultimately, the Église St. Séverin in Paris seemed the perfect venue for a centuries-spanning performance of the B-Minor Mass. 

San Francisco’s own American Bach Soloists recently gave two performances of Bach’s monumental B-Minor Mass, Sundays, August 4 and 11, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I attended the August 11 performance. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas led the American Bach Soloists Academy Orchestra and the American Bach Choir. It is almost uncanny the way Bach combines bits of music he’d written over a span of thirty-five years to create a work that, to us, seems remarkable for its encyclopedic variety in unity.  

The Kyrie and Gloria date from 1733, when Bach dedicated them to Elector Friedric August !! in Dresden. In the American Bach Soloists’ performance on August 11, the Kyrie’s solo parts were sung by sopranos Hannah De Priest and Elijah McCormack. In the final run-through of the choral Kyrie eleison, the soprano section of the Choir overpowered the lower voices and even sounded a bit shrill. (This was their only flaw in an otherwise wonderful performance.) In the Gloria, the first vocal solo was by mezzo-soprano Kristen Dubenion-Smith, while the accompanying violin solo was by YuEun Kim. The ensuing duet, Domine Deus, featured sweet-voiced soprano Carley DeFranco and robust tenor Haidar Haitham, while the accompanying flute solo was by Lynn Hallarman. Countertenor William Duffy and bass Cody Mūller, respectively, sang the final arias of the Gloria. The choral sections were often accompanied quite effectively by three trumpets. 

In the Symbolum Nicenum, soprano Paulina Francisco was joined by countertenor Benjamin Wenzelberg in a a duet that featured nicely blended voices. The choral piece Et incarnatus est was suitably slow and mysterious. The ensuing Crucifixus, as one expects, was sad and halting. The et resurrexit, however, rang out triumphantly, accompanied by trumpets, flutes, oboes, strings, and basso continuo. The aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum was impressively sung by baritone Jared Jones, accompanied by Gaia Saetermoe-Howard and Amanda Kitik on oboes d’amore. The Confiteor, a newly composed piece from 1749, offers a plainchant cantus firmus. The Et expecto features a robust chorale marked Vivace e Allegro. 

The choral Sanctus, which was included by Bach in a Lutheran liturgy on Christmas day in 1724, comprises the third section of Bach’s B-Minor Mass. There follows the Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and Dona Nobis Pacem. In the Benedictus, tenor Ethan DePuy was accompanied by Ellen Sauer on flute. In the beautifully plaintive Agnus Dei, mezzo-soprano Allison Gish displayed a deep, resonant voice and superb technique. The choral Dona nobis pacem closed the B-Minor Mass with a plea for peace.