Boston Baroque Dazzles in Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Nélida Nassar   10.25.2016

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Carl Friedrich Zelter, a great early nineteenth century expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, called the Mass in B minor “the most grandiose musical work the world has ever seen.” A compendium of Bach’s earlier works and newly composed pages from the late 1740s when he was cantor at Leipzig, the Mass is one of his last compositions for choral art and possibly his best.

Martin Pearlman, harpsichordist, composer, and early music specialist, as well as the founder and conductor of “Boston Baroque,” led his ensemble in a sparkling performance of the Mass in the intimate setting of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. A landmark of the choral repertoire, the Mass is the crowning achievement of Bach’s life-long dedication to sacred music. Pearlman embraces the traditional choral-society approach with a large choir, five soloists and an orchestra to match. However, he constantly questions the limits of musical genres and explores unexpected opportunities in a knowledgeable dialogue between baroque and classical music. His mix of period and mainstream traditions, as delivered by the group’s excellent musicians, is always balanced and well judged.

Pearlman offers dance-like vitality and dazzling transparency in his contemporary vision of this very demanding score. He manages to strike a perfect equilibrium between the stellar soloists, the limpid chorus and the virtuosic instrumentalists. Never seeking to outdo each other, they convey a joyous exuberance while maintaining a fine blend of reflection as well as clarity.

Perhaps the performance began a bit too hesitantly, as the Kyrie was not as dramatic and arresting as it could be. Gradually the tone got warmer and everything seemed to go right from then on. Countertenor David Daniels was particularly poignant in the Agus Dei, singing with great emotional depth and sincerity. Kiera Duffy, the silver-toned soprano, sparkled in the duet with Daniels in Et in unum Dominum Jesus Christum. Mezzo- soprano Jennifer Riviera displayed outstanding vocal range in Laudamus te, benedicimus te. The elegant voice of tenor Aaron Sheehan in Benedictus qui venit perfectly complemented by Jesse Blumberg’s forthright baritone; it was a joy to hear all five soloists. Dazzling instrumental playing abounded, notably the horn in Quoniam tu solus Patris of the Gloria, the two Oboi d’Amore in the Credo’s Et in Spiritum Sanctum, and the flute in the Benedicus and fluttering over Sheehan in the Sanctus. The excellent chorus provided exquisite moments of deeply felt emotion in the Gratias agimus tibi of the Gloria; the credo’s Et resurrexit tertia was sung with great fervor, while the Sanctus was at once measured and ecstatic.

Pearlman’s interpretation generally gives free reign to the baroque aspects of piece, which came to the fore brilliantly in the exalted, poetic moments of the final Dona nobis pacem. He understands perfectly the sacred dimension of the work – as mystical symbol of the divine and the sublime. All together, the performance inspired, delighted, and consoled. Boston Baroque made us listen afresh to Bach’s astonishing vocal writing, making good on the promise of their motto: “We won’t just lift your heart we’ll shake your soul.”

Martin Pearlman: Conductor

Kiera Duffy: Soprano
Jennifer Rivera: Mezzo-soprano
David Daniels: Countertenor
Aaron Sheehan: Tenor
Jesse Blumberg: Baritone