The zeppelin wasn’t patented for nearly 150 years after the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, but such an airship lifting into the sky was the first image that came to mind as Andris Nelsons raised his hands to begin the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor. Each “Kyrie eleison” from the 116-member Tanglewood Festival Chorus filled Symphony Hall, buoyant and massive. When the sopranos entered in their highest range, the music manifested as a wide expanse of cirrus clouds.
The chorus is the center of the monumental piece, singing two thirds of the movements. Forming a literal wall of sound on five risers reaching almost to the organ pipes, the TFC sang with precise intonation and impeccable control of dynamics. However, so many voices created a halo effect around phrases, adding a certain cosmic resonance but obscuring the gleaming core of Bach’s counterpoint even when only half the singers participated. In slower, more contemplative passages, such as the “Gratias agimus tibi” and “Sanctus,” the chorus wafted the ears upward on great billowing harmonies, laying a Romantic filter on the Baroque music. Faster moments, such as the “Et resurrexit,” would have been crisper and more agile with considerably smaller forces deployed; as it was, the intricate details were lost between the bulky threads of each part.
The BSO’s size was reduced for Bach’s instrumentation. Accompanying the chorus, the orchestra was compact and unfussy, each instrument or group seeming like an individual stop on the same organ. At the actual organ console, James David Christie held down a solid continuo with help from a few cellos and basses. Elizabeth Rowe conjured a bewitching flute obbligato during “Domine Deus,” darting around and between the soprano and tenor soloists’ lines, and Richard Sebring contributed a bold, noble horn solo in duet with the bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Thomas Rolfs led the trumpet section in triumphal fanfares, pushing to the stratosphere of the instrument’s range over and over. (If someone with a trumpet case sits next to you at a bar, and they mention they’ve just played the B minor Mass, buy them two drinks.)
Tenor Benjamin Bruns’s “Benedictus” rang beautifully. Soprano Malin Christensson’s voice shone like a cool sliver of moonlight in her three duets, in particular the rapturous “Et in unum Dominum” with mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, the soprano’s light lyric tone gliding above Rice’s firm, dark lower register. Rice’s “Laudamus te,” with solo by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, felt decentered, but her “Agnus Dei” was arrestingly lovely, and the perfect lead into the majestic “Dona nobis pacem.” In that grand finale, the TFC’s sonic halo was at its most seraphic, enveloping all with such warmth that it induced chills, bringing the ship safely to tether. The chorus’s new conductor, James Burton, was met with well-deserved cheers when he appeared onstage.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Feb. 2 (repeats Feb. 4 and Feb. 7). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.