The "Bach B minor" is a classic amongst choral singers, but although parts of it are so familiar and the name is often tossed around casually, upon hearing it you are reminded why it has the status it does. Bach never heard the mass in its entirety and the movements were written years apart, explaining why there is such a huge range of style; this means we are spoilt as an audience. Although Bach probably intended the parts of the work to be performed separately as needed, the amalgamation is simply divine and results in an hour and 45 minutes of exquisite music.
As this was the first time I was hearing (rather than singing) the work in its entirety, I did have high expectations, and they were not only met but exceeded. This was a truly breathtaking performance from the New London Singers, the Trafalgar Baroque Ensemble, Ivor Setterfield and the four soloists.
Once the female members of the audience (especially my grandmother) had overcome the presence of Ralph Fiennes, the concert began, and wow. From the opening word, "Kyrie", I knew I was in for something special, and the choir maintained this excitement, with perfect tuning and clear diction, throughout.
I was glad here that so much of the mass is set for chorus, as the New London Singers really were a pleasure to listen to. There was no weak part as there often is in a choir; the sopranos were angelic and the altos also made a lovely sound and weren't fazed by the trickier passages, a very strong bass line and the tenors, although there were only seven of them, balanced magnificently. They all handled the difficult semiquaver runs with ease and seemed to understand the music, emphasising important parts in the melody. Most of the movements were the best I have ever heard them, especially the Sanctus, where all the performers relished in the three-time, and the end of the Crucifixus, with a final chord that I wanted to go on for ever.
Although in the first half I had some doubts about the soloists, as it was almost impossible to champion the 47 singers behind them, by the second half they seemed a lot more comfortable and rose to the challenge. Elizabeth Weisberg excelled as the only female soloist and had a luscious sound with a confident range, although she was guilty of some over-ornamenting at times. Tenor Ben Johnson had an incredibly powerful voice which easily filled the vast church, and his Benedictus aria was simply sublime. Alexander Robin Baker as the bass soloist had only two arias but displayed a good strong voice with plenty of character.
And finally, Andrew Radley – I do have a soft spot for countertenors but this voice is really something special. Just before the final chorus the countertenor sings the Agnus Dei, and from his opening high D to the end of his six-minute aria, the whole church was completely still. The slow-moving lines and suspensions between the continuo and voice here are so powerful, and he judged them all perfectly. When the four soloists joined the choir for the final number he really shone through, and with all the forces united, it was a heroic ending to a heroic piece.
The Trafalgar Baroque Ensemble (part of the Trafalgar Sinfonia) matched up to the excellent voices around them and carried the music superbly. The orchestra included a certain number of period instruments which gave the appropriate sound, and these players stood when they were leading to remind us how important the instruments are, and see how they duet with the soloists. There were various arrangements with fewer players in arias, which resulted in a stunning contrast between the exciting loud tutti sections and the beautifully calm solo sections.
The conducting from Ivor Setterfield was exemplary, and as well as getting the choir to respond to every gesture he made, he was also clearly enjoying himself. At the loudest moments he was dancing on the podium with huge animated movements, and then in the quiet solos he would keep completely still. He was in control throughout, and it was clear the singers were at their best as they enjoyed singing for someone with so much energy.
This was truly a magical concert, and it seemed all the performers had even more energy to give even when they had finished the monumental work. The evening ended perfectly and appropriately with Setterfield holding up his score to the applause, reminding us who we really have to thank for all this enjoyment.
St Martin-in-the-FieldsTrafalgar Square
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4JJ
Ivor Setterfield © Sim Canetty-Clarke