This review appeared originally on DCist (Washington Bach Consort Opens Season, September 24).
The Consort enjoys the attention of a devoted audience, sometimes bordering on the overzealous side of Bachophilia (a necessary quality behind the desire to subscribe to an entire season of mostly Bach's music), and they were out in force for this appearance at Strathmore. While most of the seats were filled, with a few empty places in the expensive front section, it struck me, even in Row F, that the rarefied WBC sound is perhaps better served by a more resonant church or a smaller hall (the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress was ideal, as it is for most chamber groups) than the more cavernous hall at Strathmore. We heard everything, but the acoustic seemed to swallow some of the edges. It's the start of a new season, which means that there were some new faces in the chorus, and one striking absence. Although the group's Web site still lists Gisèle Becker as Assistant Conductor, she was missing from the soprano section and her name was not mentioned in the program. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but for a few years now she has been directing her own group, the Cantate Chamber Singers, and this could be the final parting of the ways between Reilly and Gigi. If so, an era has ended.
Joe Banno, Bach Consort's Perfect Setting (Washington Post, September 26)
The vocal soloists were all very effective, with Belgian countertenor Patrick Van Goethem being an especially rewarding discovery for us. Tenor Alan Bennett was exceptional, especially in those moments were Bach calls for a light, flexible sound in a rather high range, as in the fiendishly difficult Benedictus movement, which was beautiful. Bass Sanford Sylvan had a good sound, unfortunately combined with an exaggerated, mannered sense of diction and a tendency to slide up and especially down intervals of a fifth or larger. The bass's arias in the Mass are the least interesting, in our opinion, and the strangest orchestration. This is especilly true of the Quoniam tu solus sanctus movement, with a natural horn player performing the corno di caccia part in the score. R. J. Kelley did a fine job of getting the best sound he could out of this rather disagreeable instrument. (Commentators on my review of a WBC concert in Fall 2004, which also featured natural horns, gave me flack for claiming that these instruments are played with the bell upward. It turns out that I had indeed remembered correctly: this horn is not played with the fist in the bell but overtones appear to be manipulated with a small finger-button.)
The 30 choral singers were arranged in a single-row horseshoe behind the chamber orchestra, by section. When Bach divides his chorus into five parts, this divides the large soprano section in half, to cover the two soprano parts, resulting in a slightly weakened sound in those movements. Probably as a result, the highest notes sung in the work, high A's and even a few high B's, were not all that could be hoped. The B minor Mass is a work of idealism, not intended to be performed in an actual liturgy. In that sense, Bach experiments with vocal textures, among other things, by bringing together pieces, many of them composed in previous eras of his career, for 5-part chorus (two soprano parts, the choral arrangement preferred in the Catholic city of Dresden, where Bach was interested in working later in life), 6-part chorus (two soprano and two alto parts), various combinations of solo voices, and even 8-part cori spezzati (divided chorus), as well as traditional 4-part chorus. Without a lot of shuffling of singers between movements, there is no ideal way to arrange the singers to accommodate all of those textures.
Like many of the late Bach works, the Mass is a compendium of compositional styles, a sort of encyclopedia of 18th-century church music. In the opening statement of the Kyrie, Bach paraphrases Martin Luther's Kyrie melody from the Deutsche Messe. Later, he also sets Gregorian chant Credo melodies in cantus firmus style in the Symbolum Nicenum movement. (If only Bach had been able to go to Dresden late in his life: Catholic church music would have never been the same.) He includes choral movements in strict stile antico counterpoint, looking backward to the Renaissance, and more modern pieces for soloists, representing newer trends. One of the best reasons to listen to Bach's Mass is the chance to hear the choral movement Et incarnatus est, one of the last pieces composed for this composite work. This little jewel in the heart of the Mass was exquisite in this performance, breathtaking in its simplicity.
For another performance by the full Bach Consort, you will have to wait until December 4 (Sunday, 3 p.m.), for their Christmas concert at their normal venue, National Presbyterian Church. Members of the Washington Bach Consort also give monthly free concerts, on Tuesdays at lunchtime (beginning at 12:10 p.m.), in the Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Sts. NW, near Metro Center). This fall, they will present three of these noontime cantata concerts, on October 4 (Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25), November 1 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174), and December 6 (Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45).
UPDATE (from comments):
A singer with the Bach Consort has just written to confirm that Gigi Becker has indeed "retired as co-director of the Bach Consort, mainly to focus on her teaching, performing, and own group, Cantate." I was not jumping to conclusions.