Johann Sebastian Bach - Mass in B minor - Warsaw 17 January 2020

Bach B-minor Mass Faksimile-Reihe Bach'scher Werke und Schriftstücke, Neue Folge, 2  
Documenta Musicologica II/35

Bartosz Michałowski - Choirmaster

What can a modest literary author possibly say of interest in his commentary on arguably the greatest masterpiece of Western music ? What has not been said before by numerous fertile minds of genius? Before mentioning the fine performance in Warsaw, I will eschew originality and would recommend two profound books on Bach that occupied my mind when thinking about this vastly referential work, a monumental creation which swings like a great pendulum of sensibility, human culture and philosophy between the sensual and liturgical. If you wish to penetrate the labyrinth of this work, do obtain and read the sections on the B-minor Mass in Bach and the Dance of God Wilfrid Mellers (London 1980) and Music and the Castle of Heaven John Eliot Gardiner (London 2013). 

Professor Wilfrid Mellers (1914-2008) was a distinguished and brilliant music critic, composer, musicologist and writer. He read English at Downing College, Cambridge under F. R. Leavis which goes a long way to explaining his magnificent writing. From 1964 until 1981 he was founding Professor and Head of the Music Department at the University of York; he remained Emeritus Professor of Music there until his death. He was also an honorary fellow at Downing College, Cambridge. I was close to him personally as he laid the seeds of my deep love of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord and especially the music of François Couperin and J.S.Bach. I assisted in the editing and was acknowledged in the New Version of the standard work on Couperin entitled François Couperin & the French Classical Tradition (London 1987). John Eliot Gardiner requires no introduction to modern audiences.

Many feel it is odd that Bach, as a devout Lutheran, could have conceived a Roman Catholic Mass, but one must remember that the work is in essence a profoundly intense statement of Christianity that lies beyond denomination. B-minor is for Bach his 'dark key' of suffering. Here a pilgrim is engaged on the journey of life. The different sections were composed at different times, woven together in musical and theological complexity from different sources of his own secular and sacred cantata self-borrowings. John Eliot Gardiner refers to this gestation as the 'slow-burning origins of the Mass'. The source of its organic completeness are not at all clear, although the motivation behind its production was secular, at least in part. Bach desperately wanted to escape the heavy toil of his work in Leipzig and cultivated with some guile a well-remunerated and titled position at the Dresden Court of Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (there known as Frederick Augustus II) to whom the Mass is dedicated. Music of such Venetian grandeur and opulence had certainly never before been heard in Dresden. 

Mellers comments: 'There is an element of danger in this music's power and glory, which makes it very different from Handel's Augustan assurance. [...]  Bach sometimes seems superhuman simply because his humanity is total. He evades nothing. Spiritual heights and sensual depths [...] In this, Bach, although buttressed by his faith, is closer to Beethoven that one might imagine. [...] It's an apotheosis of the dance if ever there was one... His use of the polonaise in both the Quoniam  and Ex resurrexit of the Mass had both a liturgical function and was also an ennobling gesture, the offer of a type of 'royal dance' if you will, towards the Polish-Saxon court.   

Johann Matthias Gesner (1691–1761), a friend of Bach and Rector of the  Thomasshule  in Leipzig, speaks of a rehearsal by Bach during which 'the rhythm takes possession of all his limbs. I believe that my friend Bach must have many men like Orpheus within him!'

Yet at the same time his incomparable greatness as a religious composer is present in the immanence of the Crucifixus. In our Western secular age, where we tend to forget and cannot properly understand the overriding penetration of religion in daily life in the 17th century, Mellers again perceptively remarks of the Credo: 'He lived in age of faith and composed for God's glory; yet faced (in the text) with the prospect of a 'world to come' and of judgement on the quick and the dead, he betrays this tremor of fear and dubiety...'  

Heed these words...and too, take into your heart and soul the granite religious confidence that blazes from the Sanctus. Bach believed his music, his theological fugues, his 'habit of perfection', could improve people spiritually. Analogously, the humanist Renaissance architects Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Palladio believed that inhabiting rooms constructed according to the proportions of heavenly harmony enhanced one's spiritual life. Bach composed for a twofold higher purpose, 'for the glory of God and the instruction of my neighbour'.

This 'modern' performance was led by Stefano Montanari, the virtuoso baroque violinist who also conducts with remarkable flexibility, eclectic orchestras of both modern and baroque original instruments. It was a fine, if rather secular performance, whose rich harmonies, fervent dance rhythms and dynamic impetus moved me considerably, particularly the  occasionally overpowering dynamic of the enthusiastic choir. The erection of an integrated cathedral architecture was fatally disrupted by the maddening chime of mobile phones at least five times during the performance. In the Mass, Bach offered many opportunities for the talented soloists in the orchestra to shine but as often with modern orchestras in Bach, the inner polyphonic detail, transparency, unique timbre and warmth of original instruments was somewhat lacking in a blur of oceanic sound. The glorious soprano Olga Pasiecznik was outstanding as was the beautiful voice of the mezzo-soprano Karolina Makula and the talented, but perhaps not yet fully developed, mezzo-soprano Agata Schmidt.  The tenor Hugo Hymas I felt could have had more ardent substance to his voice in this liturgical role but the flexible bass/baritone Jaromir Nosek was possessed of a rich and emotionally communicative voice.

I was reminded in some ways of the impressive Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir under Karl Richter in the impactful modern sound that Montanari sculpted from the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Clearly, his deep knowledge of baroque performance practice lightened the sometimes weightier Richter. Yet this was so unlike the deeply felt and spiritual performance I heard many years ago in St. John's Smith Square in London by Gustav Leonhardt and La Petite Bande or the revolutionary, wildly exuberant, original instrument recording made in 1971 by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien with the Wiener Sängerknaben and Chorus Viennensis. How exciting were those days of the 'authentic' Bach revival of the early 1970s. For an understanding of 'The Dance of God' the recent recording by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir  in unsurpassed. 

Such music as this rises far above the quibbles of mere critics and possible alternative approaches in the interpretation of the B-minor Mass. I kept asking myself when I felt musical reservations during the performance 

'Does it really matter Michael with music as sublime as this?'


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