Bach: Mass in B minor

[Katherine Watson, Helen Charlston, Iestyn Davies, Gwilym Bowen, Neal Davies SScTTB], The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton
107:43 (2 CDs in a case)
hyperion CDA68181/2

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tephen Layton is lucky to have inherited  the first mixed voice Chapel choir of real distinction in Oxbridge, but he has honed it into a fine and responsive group of singers. Trinity’s choir has the great advantage that it never grows old, as the singers change every three or four years. For a bright, clear and clean sound, the combination of the 40 plus present and former members of Trinity’s choir with the substantial OAE band ( strings) could hardly be bettered.

This makes it a big performance with the corollary of ‘needing’ big soloists. But does it? Given the way what we now call the Mass in B minor was assembled over the years, I have never been convinced that the traditional vocal scoring – singing the ‘chorus’ numbers full throughout while leaving a different group of single voices to sing the ‘solos’ – is either historically or musically defensible.

Surely the place to start is with a choir of five singers, adding one or more groups of ripienists when the instrumental scoring demands it rather than the romantic division into a choir singing all the ‘choruses’ ff to pp in the nineteenth to twentieth century style and getting in – even if a number are Trinity alumni – additional soloists who are not part of the choir to sing the single voice numbers.

That said, the choir is wonderful. Have you ever heard 11 basses sing Et iterum venturus est  in the Et resurrexit  with such unanimity of tone and clarity of diction? And which large choir has the agility to sing Et expecto resurrectionem  so neatly at that cracking pace? This is seriously good choral singing and Stephen Layton an inspiring conductor.
The playing matches the singing. The massed violins play Et incarnatus est  to perfection as the choir sings a controlled piano, and manage the same velvety tone with the quality performance by Iestyn Davies in the Agnus Dei, but the superlative quality of Lisa Beznosiuk’s flute playing in the Benedictus is not matched by Gwilym Bowen’s slightly wayward accentuation. The question mark about the sound/style of the soloists though is not raised by them but by the splendid mezzo Helen Charleston – a choral scholar from 2011-2014 – who can sing as cleanly as the rest, but ups her vibrato to match that of Katherine Watson who was in the choir rather earlier, in the Christe. Some phrases by both of them were limpid and lovely, but not a pure as I would have liked. Presumably it was a conscious decision by Layton to use contrasting singing styles to accentuate the distinction between choir and soloists, but this allies his recording firmly with the traditional performance style, as does the very Italianate rather than German pronunciation of the Latin.

So while I think the Layton/Trinity/OAE recording is quite excellent of its kind, it won’t displace the recording by Concerto Copenhagen directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen and his ten singers as my favourite.

David Stancliffe

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