Old-fashioned Bach and a new chorus director with BSO’s Mass in B minor

February 3, 2017 at 11:14 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

New Tanglewood Festival Chorus director James Burton is applauded by Andris Nelsons and soloists following the BSO performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

New Tanglewood Festival Chorus director James Burton is applauded by Andris Nelsons and soloists following the BSO performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor Thursday night. Photo: Winslow Townson

Bach’s Mass in B minor has been the work of choice for Boston’s period instrument ensembles over the past few seasons. But to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece has been a rarity. The last time the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed it was in February 2001 under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, a noted advocate of Bach’s music in symphony concerts.

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons led the orchestra, TFC, and a band of excellent soloists in its first BSO performance in sixteen years.

Though never performed in full during Bach’s lifetime, the Mass in B minor stands as one of the grandest choral works in the repertoire. Here, Bach, the devout Lutheran, shows himself adept at setting the Catholic liturgy. Fugues and brilliant orchestration abound in a work that seems to look ahead to the power and drama of Mozart.

When performed with a small choir and period instruments, the lines of this complex work sound clear. Symphonic versions, such as the one heard Thursday night, produce a plusher quality, where the choral melodies and instrumental lines weave into one sumptuous tapestry. Different performances raise the question of which approach is better. The answer, historical accuracy aside, depends on the listener. But for those who enjoy a bigger, soupier Bach, then Nelsons is your man.

The conductor led the work as if he were conducting a Brahms symphony. Lines were shaped with subtle dynamics, textures were smooth, and attacks soft. Missing from this performance, however, was a sense of spinning intensity. This is Bach after all, and Thursday’s performance suffered from a rather mushy approach. Vocal lines, especially in the opening “Kyrie eleison” were often lost and buried beneath waves of competing sound.

Not that there weren’t beautiful moments. The phrases of the “Sanctus” poured forth in sheets of radiant tone. The “Credo” of Part Two brought much needed drama, with the “Et resurrexit” bursting in the chorus and orchestra like fireworks. BSO winds and brass supplied brilliant ornamentation when called upon.

Nelsons-led performances of concert opera and choral works often bring in a fine lineup of singers, and soprano Malin Christensson, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, tenor Benjamin Bruns, and bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann delivered their parts with commitment and graceful musicality.

Christensson’s glowing soprano and Rice’s rosy-toned mezzo complemented one another in the work’s duets. The “Christe eleison” flowed in cascading phrases. “Domine Dues, rex coelestis,” where Christensson paired up with the smooth-toned Bruns, was nimble and effervescent. Rice’s best singing came in the “Agnus Dei,” where Bach’s dark lyricism sounded with a touch of sweet agony.

Müller-Brachmann conveyed the searching lines of “Et in Spiritum sanctum” with colorful dynamic shading. And in the earlier “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” his bright, elegant voice meshed with Richard Sebring’s warmly lyrical French horn solo. Bruns’ elegant “Benedictus” seemed to put a finishing touch on a performance marked by its lush textures. Flutist Elizabeth Rowe spun a velvety melody in support.

The heroes of this performance were the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who sang with pristine diction and rich vocal blend. The “Et incarnates” moved with a quiet intensity, and the momentum missing from the mass’ first part was remedied in the “Osanna in excelsis,” which brimmed with energy and excitement.

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James Burton, who beginning Thursday evening took his place as conductor of the TFC, prepared the chorus. In addition he will fill the role of BSO Choral Conductor, a newly established position.

Trained in the choir of Westminster Abbey, St. John’s College, Cambridge, and the Peabody Conservatory, Burton is only the second conductor to be appointed to the chorus since its founding in 1970. He follows John Oliver, who holds the title of Founder and Conductor Laureate.

In his new role, Burton will audition and select singers for the chorus as well as prepare the ensemble for performances with the Boston Pops and BSO. Burton will also serve as an understudy to Andris Nelsons and seasonal guest conductors and will fill the podium when needed in the case of cancellations. He will also assist in planning concerts that will feature the chorus. In addition, Burton will conduct the TFC in featured performances of choral masterworks in Boston and Tanglewood.

“I have loved choral music since I was a young boy, and I believe that singing is one of the greatest of all human endeavors, not least when voices are joined together in a true harmony,” Burton said in a statement released earlier in the day. “For me to be given the role of bringing great choral music to Boston Symphony audiences at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood is a wonderful privilege, and I am very much looking forward to starting work.” With the fine singing from the chorus Thursday night as a promising beginning, he is well on his way.

The program will repeat 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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