Clarion’s Bach Mass in b minor – summit achieved


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Singing Bach’s Mass in b minor can be terrifying. You’re holding your own, and then, the page turns to reveal something that looks barely singable. You’re teetering like a novice downhill skiier on a slope with pathetically inadequate skills. No turning back. And that’s just a matter of vocal technique. Why is this monumental piece the way it is? That’s a life-long quest that found a provisional answer from all-professional Clarion Choir and Orchestra under Steven Fox May 1 at the Park Avenue Christian Church (pictured above).

Not often heard in concert – and then mostly in festival circumstances – the Mass in b minor has left many great conductors, from Arturo Toscanini to Wolfgang Sawallisch, not even starting up that mountain. They asked similar questions but were without satisfactory answers. Most immediately, one must ask what were the components of the Clarion’s rare success – extremely rare – with the piece? The 29-voice choir, whose members also capably sang the vocal solos, couldn’t have been more confortable with the music. There was even a sense of lovingly relaxing into it.

Among the interpretive polarities: Is the piece just about counterpoint, whose meaning is found mainly and perhaps only in the horizontal lines both vocal and instrumental (an approach taken by the young John Eliot Gardiner)? Or, as in the old days of monster-sized choirs (as in Herbert von Karajan), is the piece about homophonic masses of sound bits of counterpoint poking their heads above the blended choral sound? Another polarity: Is the piece’s core the sacred text or the dizzying, cathedral-like counterpoint? Does the music dramatize the text or, as was often the case among composers of previous generations, are the words just along for the ride of the century?

Answer: Right to all of it. Choices on those spectrums are made along the road, sometimes with little warning (which goes against the idea that everything in Bach logically leads to everything else in Bach). All great music has many facets, but the Mass in b minor is many things simultaneously, but most remarkably, pivots on a dime. The opening seconds of “Et resurrexit” explode like the dramatic supernatural resurrection moment that the words characterize. But what immediate follows is Bach having a party of counterpoint, so intricate that it’s giddy, in an act of almost pure compositional virtuosity. The final “Amen,” in contrast, had the most luminous homophonic vocal blends in the Clarion performance that I’ve heard in years.

Among the solo arias and duets, the early-on “Christe eleison” had Jessica Beebe and Aryssa Burrs trading smiles and then simply becoming the music with little to no audible effort. Later, tenor Brian Giebler’s solo-voice Benedictus came out like a confessional aria – quite a dramatic rethinking – that mixed awe, joy and perhaps a touch of melancholy humility. Burrs was back with an equaliy personalized – and moving – Agnus Dei. But just so you know these performers were human, the Cum Sanctus Spiritu had Fox pushing the tempo so far that the vocal ensemble theatened (slightly) to become unglued.

Now for the Joshua Rifkin question: In the 1970s, Rifkin stunned and outraged the early music world by performing the Mass in b minor with one singer to a part. At the time, Rifkin was thought to be in fantasy land. The last 30 years have brought scholarly revelations that he may just have been right. I never cared about the correctness. The Nonesuch-label recording was the only one in which all of the music that I heard as a performer was fully audible. Later, John Eliot Gardiner recorded the piece with cut-down forces that clearly attempted to achieve the total clarity heard in Rifkin. I never really warmed to that recording. It seems denatured and unmoored from any sense of tradition or institutional memory. Yes, I got the Bach x-ray but found it hard to care. Gardiner actually admitted, in an interview regarding his first Beethoven symphony recordings, that he was perhaps guilty of trying too hard to “pin the butterfy to the wall.” Indeed!

The Clarion performance didn’t achieve comprehensive clarity, but it went far to do so, while also maintaining the humanity of the piece. Bach was otherworldly. But he wasn’t a Martian. He was of this world. Without that element, my ears miss the elusive common denominator that unites all of the polarities of this great monument of Western Civilization. Clarion had those essential qualities. But I wonder if any group, no matter how fine, would be able to capture those qualities again. Well, at least there were microphones at the performance. There will have to be a recording.



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