Drama, divine joy in Boston Baroque performance
The historically informed performance movement aims to let today’s audiences experience music as it would have been performed when it was conceived. However, Bach’s Mass in B Minor (completed in 1749) was not performed in full until 1859, so to perform it on Baroque period instruments, as Boston Baroque did Friday night at Jordan Hall, is to perpetuate a fascinating paradox of sorts. The fact that this incongruity has become the norm only demonstrates the timelessness of the Mass, a two-hour spiritual journey encompassing some of the composer’s finest writing. The venerated Bach scholar and conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes of a solid period-instrument performance, “[It] becomes a communal rite, one built on complicity and trust.”
Friday’s performance deserved that description and more.
The instrumentalists and 28-voice choir performed in singular unity, with a supple, sublime tone. In the opening “Kyrie,” the choral phrases were distinctively detached, mimicking the less resonant qualities of Baroque strings. The “Gloria” flashed into life, leaping and bounding on a timpani thrum, earthy though the text sang of heaven. Music director Martin Pearlman deftly manipulated drama and catharsis as he conducted. He gave special emphasis to the intense chromaticism that often led into a flare of wild, divine joy, such as the coruscating “Et expecto” that ended the “Credo.” The student ticket holders may have gotten the best deal; in Jordan Hall, the lightning-paced choral nuances were more discernible in the balcony than on the ground floor.
There are no true vocal solos in the Mass, as every aria has a featured instrument as well, and the vocal soloists fared best when they demonstrated the ability to adjust with and trust their instrumental partner. Countertenor David Daniels shone in his Boston Baroque debut, his keen, warm voice intertwining with Gonzalo Ruiz’s oboe d’amore and gliding through the breathless runs of “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris.” Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera was notably tense and fluttery on “Laudamus te” compared to her instrumental counterpart, concertmaster Christina Day Martinson, whose violin obbligato tapped a primal verve.
One may know to listen for Bach’s eloquent musical structures, such as the sly trick of the Credo’s central “Crucifixus” chorus, where the voices that swirl atop the repeating bass line never harmonize the same way twice. However, even with no knowledge of the piece’s form or formation, the circling power of Boston Baroque transported. “Sanctus,” an infectious celestial dance, saw swaying in the seats. The piece’s final words, “Dona nobis pacem,” overlapped and melted together, distilling the phrases into pure devotion and hope. In an increasingly cynical world, such unashamed expression is to be treasured.
At Jordan Hall on Friday. 617-987-8600, www.bostonbaroque.org