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Fischer Drives a HIP B Minor Mass

available at Amazon
Bach, Mass in B Minor, Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble,
M. Minkowski
(Naïve, 2009)

available at Amazon
George B. Stauffer, Bach:
The Mass in B Minor

Online score:
Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Friday evening, National Symphony Orchestra Principal Conductor Iván Fischer led the orchestra and University of Maryland Concert Choir in an enthralling performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The NSO’s latest foray into the once specialist-only realm of historically informed performance practice (HIP) -- last spring it was the UMD Concert Choir with Helmuth Rilling leading Haydn’s Creation -- showed that a mainstream American orchestra can perform early music with fashionable musicological ideas that can connect with both the audience’s intellect and soul.

The NSO was a vibratoless baroque band, few in numbers, spinning out shapes like a top in tandem with an exquisitely blended chorus of about forty-five singers that included sopranos who could easily ascend to the top of their range without increasing in volume. Credit goes to Fischer for experimenting with the alternative placement of musicians: the winds took the entire front row around the podium, while the chorus was split into five separated sections forming a “U” around the orchestra, seemingly to aid coordination between the sections. One drawback was that the second violins were on the opposite side of the stage from the firsts, leading to a slight delay when both sections were playing unison material. Regardless, this was a generation away from the norm of a symphonic chorus of hundreds being prodded along by a lethargic orchestra of similar proportion, heavily attempting to make Brahms out of Bach.

Fischer perhaps overly personalized the opening statements of the Kyrie, yet once a solid tempo was established in the next section, the work came to life. It is fair to say that one wondered at times if Fischer’s brisk tempos were chosen to make a point to those that say symphonic musicians cannot hack this approach to performance practice (in this case all were highly polished except for the bumbling trumpets, even with the modern help of valves!), whether to keep the program within certain time limits (the Et incarnatus est section of the Credo was skipped!), or if that is simply what he preferred. Impressively, Fischer gave nearly full attention to the chorus and soloists, always demanding more when one perceived he was finally satisfied with previous demands. Fischer reached a high point when bringing the lamenting Crucifixus passacaglia down to a haunting hush; a low point at the Pleni sunt coeli fugue of the Sanctus, which lacked dignity due to its irreverent (fast) pace.

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Soprano Dominique Labelle, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and tenor Michael Slattery all shined in their abilities to match reediness with resonance, whereas baritone Thomas E. Bauer seemed to have to dig to find low notes, which is not surprising since he was singing bass arias. Unfortunately, Lemieux often extended and accented “s’s,” perhaps causing colossal amplification failure. Under Fischer’s hand -- he conducted sans baton -- the NSO is giving the Washington National Cathedral Choirs and Baroque Pickup Orchestra some competition for the most exceptional early music in town.

The National Symphony Orchestra does not have another classical program scheduled until the end of the month, when guest conductor Hans Graf leads an all-French program with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (April 29 to May 1). For your orchestral fix this coming week, Hannu Lintu will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an intriguing program of Beethoven, Sibelius, and Rautavaara (April 8 and 9 in Baltimore, April 10 at Strathmore).

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