I last heard a live performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-Minor Mass back in February 2017, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus did it at Symphony Hall under music director Andris Nelsons. That was, by 21st-century standards, a large-scaled effort, with an orchestra of 44 and a chorus of 116. The presentation Ryan Turner and Emmanuel Music gave Saturday at Emmanuel Church was more modest, with an orchestra of 28 and a chorus of 27. Boston has not wanted for performances of Bach’s titanic work: over the past 10 years the piece has been offered by the Cantata Singers, the Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston Cecilia, Chorus pro Musica, Boston Baroque, the Boston Early Music Festival, and Emmanuel Music itself back in 2011. But there’s always room for one more, and there was certainly room for this one.
Borrowing liberally from his previous output, Bach compiled his greatest-hits Mass in 1749, the year before his death, with an eye to posterity. He never heard the work, and indeed he never intended it as music for a church service but rather to showcase his mastery of styles old and new. The Baroque-style fugue in the first section of the Kyrie is followed by Palestrina-like Renaissance polyphony in the second, and then in the Credo, a plainchant cantus firmus melody acts as a walking bass, a pilgrim asserting his faith.
The chorus ranges from sober to ecstatic, conveying an assurance of general salvation; the soloists, on the other hand, are plagued by guilt and doubt as they deal, often in a minor key, with the sections of the Mass relating to Christ. There’s a lot of dancing, too: you might make out a polonaise in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” of the Gloria, a siciliana in the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” of the Credo, a passepied in the “Osanna in excelsis” of the Sanctus, perhaps even a réjouissance in the “Et resurrexit” of the Credo.
There wasn’t much dancing at the outset of Saturday’s performance, which was similar to the one I heard Turner and Emmanuel give in 2011. Turner took the opening section of the Kyrie at a devotional tempo, but he punctuated rather than phrased, and the result felt a bit like a dissection. The orchestra, with the winds smartly positioned on his immediate right, had good balance and energy; so did the chorus, though from such a relatively small ensemble one might have hoped for cleaner enunciation.
Both the Kyrie and the Gloria suffered from a lack of contrast and rhythmic bite. The final section of the Kyrie didn’t build. The Gloria, at a steady tempo, didn’t erupt, despite splendid work from the trumpets, and the mood didn’t change for the “Et in terra pax.” But the “Qui tollis” was dreamy, almost starlit, and the closing “Cum Sancto Spiritu” all but rocked.
The second half of the Mass, after a 20-minute intermission, went better. The Credo started brightly; the “Incarnatus” was hushed and somber, with improved diction. The “Crucifixus,” as if realizing the fears of the “Incarnatus,” suggested a nightmare from which there’s no waking — which made the explosion of the “Et resurrexit” that much more jubilant. The Sanctus, which can be stodgy, was celebratory and forward-moving; the “Osanna” maintained the momentum. A firm rhythm kept the slow tempo of the “Agnus Dei” coherent, and then the “Dona nobis pacem,” which reworks the melody of the Gloria’s “Gratias agimus tibi,” rose to a majestic finale.
The vocal soloists were, as is Emmanuel Music’s custom, drawn from the chorus, with opportunities given to 12 different singers. As in 2011, they struggled to make an impact against the orchestra. The “Agnus Dei,” with the alto as a kind of Mater Dolorosa, tends to be the most memorable vocal solo (perhaps because it’s sung slowly against a very quiet orchestra). That was case in 2011, when Krista River sang it, and again Saturday with Carrie Cheron’s performance.
Vanessa Holroyd’s solo flute was just as sweet and sensuous as it had been in 2011, and so was Peggy Pearson’s oboe d’amore. The three trumpets — Terry Everson, Richard Kelley, and Mary-Lynne Bohn — squealed superbly throughout. And Robert Schulz’s timpani made a joyful noise.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor. At Emmanuel Church, Saturday, Oct. 26
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.