Reviews: August 2013 B Minor Mass

The Times, four stars, Sarah Unwin Jones
The Herald, Conrad Wilson
Bachtrack, four stars, David Smythe

THE TIMES: review

There are a few things you can count on in an Edinburgh August. And one of them is that on a cool evening just before the International Festival opens, Ludus Baroque will celebrate with their annual performance of the Bach B Minor Mass in airy Canongate Kirk, their home since they were founded in 1997.

The period music ensemble, the brainchild of Richard Neville-Towle, the kirk's musical director, performs only twice a year. Yet with a chorus culled from the likes of the Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir, an orchestra made up of period instrument specialists and a suite young soloists on the rise, it can make for some rather thrilling performances.

That, indeed, was the case with Bach's magnificent choral masterpiece, despite the occasional issue with sound levels. If the generous acoustic of Canongate Kirk softened the rare rough edge in the orchestra, it was a little less kind to the fine soloists (countertenor Tim Mead and tenor Anthony Gregory among them) occasionally swamped by the gutsy strings behind, particularly soprano Mary Bevan's 'Laudamaus te' and bass William Berger's attentive 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum'.

However, it was the chorus who overwhelmed elsewhere. Neville-Towle subverted the thorny issue of voices per part by plumping for a flexible force of 19, a triumph of individual articulation and thrilling volume. The opening Kyrie floated serenely over the orchestra's gravelly finesse; the Gloria was ecstatic, buoyed by excellent trumpets under Simon Desbruslais, the whole beautifully held by Neville-Towle. And if Part II almost threatened to underwhelm after the majestic conclusion to Part I, it was all swept aside in a Sanctus that rolled forth in rich waves of sound.

THE HERALD: review

Ludus Baroque's annual B minor Mass has reached a point where it belongs neither to the Fringe nor to the official Edinburgh Festival but simply to the realm of reliably good performances of great music in atmospheric surroundings.
Canongate Kirk may not be the grandest venue for this work, but it is beautifully scaled for 18 choristers, four soloists and a handful of instrumentalists who have accustomed themselves to its apt (if patchy) acoustics, and who pack the pews each year with festival-goers eager to hear Bach's masterpiece in inspirational surroundings.

Directed as usual by Richard Neville-Towle, and dedicated to the memory of his wife, the performance on this occasion grew steadily out of the long opening chorus, creating an increasingly luminous tapestry. By the end of the evening the sound elatingly filled the church. What happened in between was a baroque adventure in which the words, shot through with invigorating cellos, tender woodwind, or merely the matching of bassoon tone to the voice of the solo baritone, were delivered with sustained narrative grip.

Tim Mead's counter tenor unfurling of the Agnus Dei brought the moment of highest eloquence. But the other soloists - Mary Bevan, Anthony Gregory, William Berger - all contributed good things and, like the alert young choristers, were unperturbed by the way the church acoustics suddenly threw details out of focus.

BACHTRACK: review

Ludus Baroque was founded in 1997 by Richard Neville-Towle, the Director of Music at Cannongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, and has built up a reputation for excellence as the group comprises hand-picked specialist Baroque players and singers from around the UK. The annual Fringe concert is clearly ringed in many diaries as the powder-blue pews in the pretty white kirk were packed for this sell-out performance.
Bach’s Mass in B minor was one of the composer’s final compositions, although some material was derived from earlier works. There is still confusion about why this mass was written. Bach never heard a complete performance in his lifetime, yet discussions continue. Was it written for the dedication of the Hofkirche in Dresden still under construction, or simply Bach’s desire to see his church music more universally used? A comprehensive programme note from Peter Small, Chairman of Bach Network UK, suggests that the work was studied by other composers, including Mozart, explaining some similarities with his Mass in C, and Haydn certainly had a copy in his library. There is certainly no argument that we have been left with one of “the greatest musical works of all times and peoples”. It is strange how musical fashions go, with modern performances generally moving away from huge choirs accompanied by many players, to seek out the authentic sounds as Bach might have heard things, as in this performance with a choir of just 19 and a chamber orchestra of 24 players on fabulous Baroque instruments.

Conductor Richard Neville-Towle set a very steady pace in the opening Kyrie, and it was quickly apparent that we were in for a special evening of wonderful singing from this exceptional choir of selected singers from Britain’s early music consorts. Soprano lines soared in the excellent church acoustic, and the five part semi-chorus with male alto was especially magnificent. This work has several calls on soloists from the chorus, and here we heard from different groups of voices each time. This mass is dominated by choruses and the singers produced exciting and successfully blended singing with lots of attention to detail, from quieter moments to the big set pieces like the Osanna chorus.

In a period band, it is the continuo players who provide the backbone to a performance. Jan Waterfield on chamber organ and Christopher Suckling on Baroque cello, sometimes joined by bass and bassoons, not only gave the reliable support required, but played with considerable variation, from exciting flourishes to great sensitivity where required. Led by the period violin expert Oliver Webber, the strings were played with pointy Baroque bows and reminded us of the strikingly different, mellow sound world of gut-stringed instruments. Webber’s understated but brilliant solo obbligato in Laudamus te was particularly fine. Elsewhere, solo turns from Rachel Helliwell and Siu Peasgood on wooden flutes, standing to accompany solo singers were a particular highlight, as were the three period trumpeters who also stood to play, warming up their spectacular valve-less instruments ahead of their entries.

Of the soloists, soprano Mary Bevan and countertenor Tim Mead sang nicely balanced duets, with Bevan having the slightly lighter voice in the Christe eleison, singing with pure tone in the Laudamus te aria and in a delightful duet with tenor Anthony Gregory against plucked bass strings and solo flute in Domine Deus. Bass William Berger completed the quartet of soloists, not particularly at ease in Quoniam tu solus with a tricky horn obbligato, but more certain later in Et in spiritum sanctum.

Conductor Richard Neville-Towle was entertaining to watch, as he ever so carefully shaped the music in the delicate passages and encouraged everyone along when things became livelier, swinging both arms and grinning broadly at the trumpeters and timpani players as they came in to produce thrilling sounds.

A highlight of this remarkable performance was Tim Mead’s plaintive rendition of the Agnus Dei ahead of the final chorus. His exquisite countertenor voice filled the hushed church as he implored God to have mercy on us in a truly heartfelt aria. It was stunningly beautiful. A final chorus of Dona nobis pacem, sung by choir and the four soloists, rounded off a very classy Edinburgh Fringe event.

The capacity audience clearly agreed, as there was tremendous and extended applause for the vocal soloists, choirmaster Will Dawes, stepping down from the basses to give Neville-Towle a hug, and the players themselves, first soloists then the whole ensemble standing. I am sure next year’s Fringe concert from Ludus Baroque will be well earmarked on many calendars.