Bach: Mass in B Minor
- Winchester Cathedral
Anna Dennis – soprano
Katherine Watson – soprano
William Towers – countertenor
Lynton Atkinson – tenor
Jimmy Holliday – bass
Malcolm Archer – organ continuo
Winchester Music Club
Winchester College Glee Club and Quiristers
Winchester Music Club Orchestra
Brian Howells – leader
Nicholas Wilks – conductor
by Duncan Eves
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle of 9th-15th December 2010.
Stylish performance of challenging Mass
Bach’s Mass in B minor is one of the great peaks of choral composition, a synthesis of all Bach’s artistic and religious ideals, acclaimed as a sublime masterpiece and recognised as one of the pinnacles of Western European culture. It places great demands on performers and represents a challenge to all who undertake to perform it. Nick Wilks, the conductor of this performance, laid out some of the demands and challenges in his well-researched essay in the programme booklet, explaining that he was under no illusion as to the enormity of this musical undertaking.
In these times of musical ‘authenticity’ it is good to be reminded that Bach can be played on modern instruments and still sound fresh and alive. Here we had some lovely instrumental playing – violin, oboe, flute, horn – in the solo arias and a splendidly stylish continuo cello from Spike Wilson. Chorus and orchestra captured the brilliance of the joyful sections and the devout expressiveness of the quieter moments. Nowhere was this dramatic contrast more telling than in the Credo, where the hushed mood of the Incarnatus and Crucifixus was followed by the exhilaration of the Et resurrexit. The chorus was alert to the various sudden changes of tempo that Bach employs throughout the Mass, although the notorious cathedral acoustic muddied the texture of some of the faster sections.
Part of the challenge of the Mass in B minor is that the chorus is divided not into the usual four voice parts, but into five parts. Bach complements this with five solo singers and Thursday night’s quintet produced some well-balanced voices. Soprano Anna Dennis (Winchester’s home-grown international star) gave us a lovely tonal blend in her duets with countertenor William Towers, soprano Katherine Watson and tenor Lynton Atkinson. In other sections of the Mass William Towers brought a brilliant and incisive tone to his solos and bass Jimmy Holliday (a former lay-clerk with Winchester cathedral choir) sang with clear diction and a full, rich tone. Tenor Lynton Atkinson was unfortunately vocally below par on this occasion and while his earlier singing showed no strain his solo in the Benedictus revealed a voice in suffering, which was a real pity as the flute obbligato was beautifully executed.
All credit to conductor and chorus for taking on this huge challenge. The choral sound was rich and full, the complex contrapuntal passages were negotiated with agility and there was evident enjoyment and enthusiasm from the massed forces. A very stylish performance which conveyed the magnificence of Bach’s conception and gave obvious pleasure to the audience.