The Mass in B Minor is the only full mass, which Bach wrote and it was also his last major composition. It was pulled together from movements written earlier in his life to which he added newly composed sections. There is speculation that Bach wrote this full mass, not for liturgical use, but as a statement of Christian beliefs for all people and for all time. Musically, it represents the pinnacle of High Baroque style. Bach’s own sons were already writing in a simpler, galant style. In this sense, Bach was behind the times but this piece is the mature work of a genius. The different colours of each movement and section are created by unique combinations of wind, brass and string timbres. This is the canvas upon which the words of the mass are layered. The skill level demanded from instrumentalists and singers is equally high and this represents a challenge of the highest order to any amateur groups.
The opening movement, Kyrie eleison, sets up all that is to follow. A short, chromatic, choral declamation in B minor is followed by an instrumental prelude of dark and subdued nature from strings and oboe d’amore. This was disappointing from the Philharmonic; despite the initial richness of the basses and well-blended tenors, the singing was tentative and the orchestral tuning suspect. It seemed to take a while for both singers and players to warm up to their task, but warm up they did! The long, fugal section was clearly articulated and the conductor, Robin Morrish, initiated thoughtful light and shade, which is not always heard even in professional performances.
The Gloria began with sparkling high trumpets, which was hard for the low alto section to match but, when the other voices joined in, this movement was spirited and the choir handled the changes of speed and dynamic well. The four professional soloists were joined by orchestral member, Caroline Walshaw, for part of the Et in terra pax section. This choice to replace some choral sections with soloists was unexpected but effective here and elsewhere in the work.
The soloists were particularly pleasing and generally well-matched. Soprano, Laurie Ashworth and Mezzo Soprano, Clare McCaldin, worked well together and individually. Laurie’s Laudamus te showed fluid precision and Clare’s final Agnus Dei was just wonderful. Tenor, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, and Bass, Christopher Foster, gave good accounts of themselves also.
There were moments of disappointment when the enormity of this piece daunted the normally fearless Tonbridge Phil. There was a tendency for the pitch to droop especially in slower sections where the need for correct breathing and nourished legato singing is all important. At times, the string section seemed too strong for the intricate wind writing to come through. However, these times were few and the joyous, open sound of the faster movements such as Gratias agimus tibi, the individual performances of Alison Aries (flute), Penelope Howard (violin) and Jackie Sanjana (horn) and the confident and accurate work by the men of the chorus far outweighed any occasional lapses.