Culture Magazine

Concert Review: Faith Without Pause

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Bernard Labadie leads Bach's Mass in B minor.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Faith Without Pause

Bernard Labadie leads Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec
in Bach's Mass in B minor. Photo by Melanie Burford.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor is more than church music. It is a towering setting of the Catholic liturgy that while never performed in full in the composer's lifetime, can elevate the listener no matter what faith they profess. Its glories were on full display in Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. The performance (mounted without an intermission) was by the period ensemble Les Violins du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec under the leadership of their founder Bernard Labadie.
Bach composed the initial sections of the Mass to be dedicated to Augustus III, the new Elector of Saxony. His object (which he achieved) was the post of court composer in Dresden. In the last years of his life, the composer completed the full setting of the ordinary text of the Mass. (It may have been planned for the opening of a new church in Dresden but the composer died before the work could be premiered. The world did not hear this work in full until 1859, at the height of the 19th century revival of interest in Bach's music.
Mr. Labadie chose a traditional approach to performing this work, using modest orchestral and choral focuses as might have been done in Bach's day. The choristers surrounded the orchestra on three large walkways, divided into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. The musicians were positioned in a unique manner. Small string ensembles were on either side of the conductor's dais, with just eight violins, two cellos and a pair of basses. A portative organ and harpsichord sat further upstage. The woodwinds and brass, seated on the outer perimeter of the ensemble, stood up to play their key passages. However, the players used modern horns and woodwinds, creating a hybrid sound.
The power of Mr. Labadie's approach was heard from the first enunciation of the opening Kyrie. Bach takes six words of Greek and stretches them out to twenty minutes, exploring every possibility in this cry for mercy. The "Christe eleison" featured the first entry of soloists Lydia Teuscher and Iestyn Davies, the latter a countertenor singing the part normally reserved for a tenor.  The choristers' clear delivery and the emotional commitment was clear in each polyphonic line. The Gloria (the text switches to Latin here and stays there for the remainder of the work) is divided into nine parts, four of them solo arias. In the culmination of these, bass Matthew Brook sang "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" with warm and burry tone.
The Credo is the most textually complicated part of the Mass, and Bach did not hesitate to divide it into nine sections of great musical variance. "Et in unum dominum" is a duet for soprano and countertenor, with Ms. Teuscher dueling nimbly with Mr. Davies. Particularly stirring is the transition from the grim Crucifixus (retelling the story of the death of Christ) and the joyous outburst that accompanies the account of the Resurrection. Here, this music burst upon the ears with great and jubilant force, as Mr. Labadie urged his singers in a massive fortissimo outburst that impacted fully on the senses.
The singers were shuffled and repositioned for the Hosanna, forming two mixed groups on either side of the stage. This created a bouncing, antiphonal effect, enhanced by the thrust of trumpets and timpani, the brass instruments diving in and out of the main vocal line in feats of contrapuntal agility. In the Benedictus, the two flautists stood up. With the portative organ, they accompanied the supple singing of tenor Robin Tritschler, a promising talent who is relatively unknown to New York listeners. A reprise of the Hosanna chorus followed, before the choristers repositioned themselves back to their first positions.
The Agnus Dei forms the finale of this work. First, there's the aria: a lengthy extrapolation of the text that placed considerable but manageable demands on Mr. Davies' high instrument. He sang over a simple accompaniment, moving in its purity and clarity of expression. There was something of the ecstatic and the somber in this music, fitting the weight of the text. The second part of the Agnus Dei is the Dona nobis pacem: a slow sunrise in the chorus, carefully led to its climax by Mr. Labadie. The choral finale finally rises to a last climax with trumpets and drums but never loses the contemplative feel necessary to these words.
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