Building Bach: Hengelbrock offers a great version of the ‘Mass in B minor’ | Culture


On April 9, 1786, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach conducted in Hamburg the first performance of a fragment of the Mass in B minor, from his father Johann Sebastian. It was a benefit concert, where Bach’s most famous son, who was 72 years old, showed some of his main achievements as a composer. But where, in addition, he dedicated a first part to two compositions that he considered masterpieces. Of the Mass in B minorwhose autograph he had inherited, selected the The Nicene Creed (Credo) that preceded an own orchestral prelude and where he added several alterations in the paternal manuscript. And of The Messiahby Handel, conducted the soprano aria I know my Redeemer lives and the famous Hallelujah.

The German director Thomas Hengelbrock (Wilhelmshaven, 63 years old) ended his concert last night with this Handel choir at the head of the Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble, at the National Auditorium, centered on the Mass in B minor. A tip from Handel surely unnecessary, after two hours of wonderful Bach music. For many, this popular climax was a way of celebrating the concert in the midst of the wave of cancellations and difficulties with omicron. But it was also a nod to the complex history of the composition and reception of this colossal work, which Bach wrote, between 1748 and 1749, compiling and adapting his own compositions from the past, and where he invested his last creative efforts without a apparent goal. In fact, the work presents the paradox of being the Catholic mass of a faithful Protestant, as Luis Gago titles his notes to the program.

Thomas Hengelbrock conducting the Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble, last Sunday at the National Auditorium.
Thomas Hengelbrock conducting the Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble, last Sunday at the National Auditorium.RAFA_MARTIN

We owe the Swiss publisher Hans Georg Nägeli its first edition, between 1833 and 1845, and also its name, alluding to the key of B minor of the first Kyrie: High Mass in B minor. Nägeli announced his publishing project with an emphatic headline, in 1818: “The greatest musical work of all times and all peoples”. Partial interpretations followed one another, until 1859, when Carl Riedel finally premiered it in its entirety in Leipzig. But the work has continued to evolve, from those massive nineteenth-century choral societies to today’s groups specializing in early music, such as the Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble, which combines thirty voices with another thirty instrumentalists.

This work by Bach has accompanied the German group and its director practically since its inception, in the early nineties. In 1996, they recorded it for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, shortly before splitting from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and creating their own instrumental ensemble. That version arose from an allegorical stage representation of the Mass in B minorwhose scenery we can see on the album cover, and have periodically returned to it.

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The pandemic ruined his last tour with this composition, at the end of 2020, although it could be seen online. transmission his performance at the completely empty Hamburg Elbphilharmonie. Obviously, what was heard last night in the Baroque Universe cycle of the CNDM is much closer to that version in Hamburg than to the one 25 years earlier in DHM, but a constant evolution is perceived in Hengelbrock. He is the worthy contemporary heir to his teacher, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and few have so successfully combined the podium with intellect.

Already in the chord in B minor that opened the first Kyrie it was clear that we were going to hear a great version of the work. A thoughtful, restrained and refined interpretation, built with patience and care, in the same way that Bach’s contemporary architect, Balthasar Neumann, who gave the group its name, worked. Hengelbrock has incorporated, in an amazingly effective and musical way, Joshua Rifkin’s famous and controversial idea of ​​reducing Bach’s choir to one singer per part. We checked it in the first Kyrie with those contrasts concertmasterfilling analogous to those practiced by Bach in his concerts. The German director also praises the fluid combination of styles proposed by the work. And after the first Kyrie, which is a choral fugue in hybrid style, he underlines the modern concerted from the Christie’s for soprano duo with violins, admirably sung by Ágnes Kovács and Stephanie Firnkes, to round off the old style choir of the second Kyrie.

Countertenor William Shelton (standing in the background) during his solo intervention in 'Agnus Dei' of the 'Misa en B minor', last Sunday at the National Auditorium.
Countertenor William Shelton (standing in the background) during his solo intervention in ‘Agnus Dei’ of the ‘Misa en B minor’, last Sunday at the National Auditorium.RAFA_MARTIN

The Gloria numbers flowed naturally. Hengelbrock is committed to extracting all the soloists from his vocal and instrumental ensembles. And that decision suffers slightly in terms of volume and quality in the vocal part, especially in the male section. If he We praise you featured a brilliant intervention by the contralto Anne Bierwirth and the ornate solo by the violinist Daniel Sepec, in Lord God the soprano Bobbie Blommesteijn and the flute of Michael Scmidt-Casdoftf stood out above the tenor Jan Petryka. The same could be said of the countertenor Matthias Lucht, in who seesin front of the excellent love oboe by Valerie Colen, although in For, neither bass Joachim Höchbauer nor natural horn player Franz Draxinger had an inspired night. The highlight of the Gloria were the choral numbers, such as the suspension on the what do you lift or the contrapuntal implosion of with the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, during the Thanks accidentally exploded the skin patch of one of the vintage kettledrums, which were supplied in extremis by modern ones.

In the Creed (The Nicene Creed), the German director raised the drama of its central part, with that succession of three choirs that represent the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, with an amazing transition from crucified Alabama And got up again. However, another of the glorious moments of the night was the I’m waiting, where he dilated the stylistic distance between the austere expectation and the celebratory intensity. The Holy It was another choral festival, from beginning to end, where the the skies are full.

And in the final block, with Osana, Benedict, Lamb of God Y give us peaceapart from the everything, the most moving moment of the night occurred. It came with the deep, focused performance of countertenor William Shelton, of the Lamb of God, with an austere accompaniment by Hengelbrock supported by the continuo led by organist Michael Behringer. An interpretation that the public thanked at the end with a tremendous ovation for the singer. It was only missing give us peaceas a repetition of Thanks from the Gloria, although Bach copied four more staves below it in his autograph, as if he had wanted another resolution. One of many mysteries Mass in B minor.

CNDM 21/22 Baroque Universe. Bach: ‘Mass in B minor’. Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble.

Musicians: Ágnes Kovács and Bobbie Blommesteijn (sopranos), Stephanie Firnkes (mezzo-soprano), Anne Bierwirth (contralto), Matthias Lucht and William Shelton (countertenors), Jan Petryka and Jakob Pilgram (tenors), Joachim Höchbauer and Daniel Ochoa (bass). Balthasar-Neumann Chor & Ensemble. Thomas Hegelbrock (conductor).

Location: National Auditorium. Calle Principe de Vergara, 146, Madrid.

Date: January 30th.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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