Bach’s monumental Mass in B minor, a summation of his vocal mastery that he completed the year before his death, was not performed in his lifetime, but it never wants for champions in Boston. The Cantata Singers and Emmanuel Music did it in 2011; the Handel and Haydn Society offered performances last September. Friday at Jordan Hall, on the 329th anniversary of the composer’s birthday, the Boston Cecilia weighed in with a reading that deserves a place in the regular lineup.
It was clear from the reduced orchestra — 27 members — that this was going to be a modern, slimmed-down interpretation, and music director Nicholas White’s tempos turned out to be not very different from those favored by Handel and Haydn artistic director Harry Christophers. The chorus, however, numbered 62, including the eight soloists (who sang throughout), and for this performance that was ideal. I was initially alarmed at the way the singers bit off the syllables of the Kyrie, but the very precise enunciation proved a blessing, as virtually every word of the choral sections was intelligible. The “Crucifixus” was passed from one area of the chorus to another in a horrified whisper before everyone exploded into the “Et resurrexit.” The sound throughout was massive but pellucid, and White with his long-arcing phrases built a hypnotic fervor, breaking the spell only with beautifully judged cadences.
The playing of the period-instrument orchestra was a little less successful. The strings sounded scratchy and out of tune at times, despite the presence of such stellar violinists as Daniel Stepner and Danielle Maddon, the three natural trumpets squealed less than delightfully, and John Boden struggled with his natural horn when accompanying bass James Dargan in the “Quoniam.” And White seemed to revert to a choppy style when the chorus wasn’t singing. His beat looked square, and that didn’t help the soloists, who sang well but didn’t project as much feeling as the chorus.
Still, soprano Erika Vogel and alto Clare McNamara blended nicely in the “Christe eleison,” and later McNamara made a good pairing with oboist Stephen Hammer in the “Qui sedes.” In the “Domine Deus,” Christopher Krueger’s flute hovered about Vogel and tenor Marcio de Oliveira as if it were the Holy Spirit; in the “Et in unum Dominum,” soprano Sonja Tengblad and countertenor Reggie Mobley might have been Mary and Mary Magdalene relating how for our salvation Jesus came down from heaven. Bass Bradford Gleim was affecting in the “apostolicam ecclesiam” of the “Et in spiritum sanctum,” words that Bach set with unexpected ardor for a Lutheran. Tenor Stefan Reed brought his usual blessed voice to the “Benedictus”; Mobley negotiated the poignant “Agnus Dei” with no strain. Timpanist Jonathan Hess was, like Krueger and Hammer, a stalwart all evening. But it was the chorus that made this Bach birthday one to remember.