I have to accept the way [Bach] believed. His music never stops praying.... I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it—as the nails are being driven in. --György Kurtág
This week, the New York Philharmonic's ongoing Bach Variations festival brings a deeply impressive slate of soloists to join the orchestra and the New York Choral Artists as Alan Gilbert leads his first performances of the B Minor Mass; I attended the first of these on Wednesday. For me, this was the first live performance of a piece I've listened to countless time since it taught me, when I was seven, that grown-ups could cry, and it's music I love deeply. It's music that's prayed with me and that has prayed for me when I could not. Under Gilbert's baton, the order and beauty of the baroque were celebrated in all their magnificence. Collectively and severally, the members of the orchestra delivered passionate and polished performances. And the evening led me to ponder: when it comes to Bach--especially when it comes to this Bach--can one achieve excellence without confronting eternity?
The opening "Kyrie" was given with academic elegance, building through the passionate and expressive counterpoint of Dorothea Röschmann and Anne Sofie von Otter to a "Gloria" that had the strong form and the opulence of a baroque nave. It was Röschmann's "Laudamus te," however, that flooded the space with sunlight, in a performance whose dazzling security of ornamentation conveyed joyous, self-giving exuberance. (It was a treat to watch Von Otter watching the performance from the side of the stage, counting through the lines and sometimes even tasting the text along with Röschmann, leaning over to compliment her when she had finished.) Paired with Röschmann for the "Domine Deus," Steve Davislim (despite a few minor text flubs) impressed with a clear, carrying tenor, darkness and light seeming layered in his voice. The choral movements preceding the creed gradually built in power, with both Von Otter's "Qui sedes" and Eric Owens' "Quoniam tu solus" providing masterful examples of assured expression through text and musical line alike.
There was a suspicion at the outset of the Credo of the tenors not being quite on, but this was soon swallowed up in the excitement and the emotional focus of Röschmann and Von Otter's duet. Hearing these two voices together was simply a treat. In the great triad of movements at the heart of the Creed, Gilbert steered with a steady hand... perhaps too steady a hand, in this statement of the three apparent impossibilities of Christian faith: the humanity of God, the killing, the rising from death. "Et incarnatus" was aptly solemn, if not mystical. I was grateful for Gilbert's clear ideas on the "Crucifixus," sharp consonants creating focused brutality, giving way to the mourning: passus et sepultus est. (To me, this is the most horrible moment: the deposition, the broken body.) The trumpets were nothing less than marvelous in their heralding of the resurrection. Through bringing triumph as well as gravitas to "Et in Spiritum Sanctum," Eric Owens made the transition between the movements make profound sense. The conclusion of the Creed was solid if not particularly vivid. The exultant, architectural splendors of the "Sanctus" were given due attention, though the movement was taken a trifle fast for my possibly idiosyncratic tastes (if the angels are singing this even after time ends, there's really no hurry! Linger over this sublime fugue, o conductors of the world!) The chorus hosannaed with crisp command, and Davislim's "Benedictus" was strong and even, if slightly less than easy at the top. The "Agnus Dei" was--at last--nothing short of sublime. Von Otter spun out the long lines between strength and the ultimate fragility, expressing the paradox of simultaneous yearning and confidence. The prayer for peace seemed almost a murmured response.
In sum, it was a very fine performance, but all its glories were bearable ones.