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Intimations of Immortality

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/13/2013 -  & March 14, 15, 16, 2013
Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

Dorothea Röschmann (Soprano), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo-Soprano), Steve Davislim (Tenor), Eric Owens (Bass-Baritone)
Robert Langevin (Flute), Sherry Syler (Oboe), Kent Tritle (Organ), Paolo Bordignon (Harpsichord), Glenn Dicterow (Violin), New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Musical Director/Conductor)

A. Gilbert (© New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

Whether the new Pope came from South America or South Bronx is irrelevant. He is mortal, ephemeral. The Catholic Church is immortal not through its temporal leaders but through the artistic inspiration of its artists. Whether inspired by God or by their own genius, nothing in any religion comes near to Chartres Cathedral, to the Paradise of Dante, to Michenangelo’s Creation.

And–to this writer–most inspired of all was that old Lutheran organ-grinder, J.S. Bach, with a work which he only heard in his own mind (it wasn’t performed until a century later), with an inspiration that is still a secret, the Mass in B Minor.

The New York Philharmonic’s program notes this week are fairly complete on the history of the Mass, and they can be blessed for that. But listening to Alan Gilbert’s superb performance of the two-hour-plus work last night as part of the Philharmonic’s “Bach Variations” series was–as always with this work–revelation.

Mr. Gilbert did not work down to the chamber “one-voice-to-a-stave” interpretation. How anybody could imagine a mere six or eight voices singing the Sanctus is impossible to conceive. The New York Choral Artists’s sixty resounding voices is what Bach would have wanted. Mr. Gilbert also used the full Philharmonic Orchestra, with a brilliant brass section (Bach never stinted when he needed brass), splendid first-chair solos, a harpsichord and organ used with extreme discretion, and four soloists sufficient for volume, rarely excessive for florid style.

Granted the chorus was hardly subtle and frequently was more forte than light and clear. But when the New York Choral Artists went suddenly from the exuberant Et incarnatus est to the hushed Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, the effect had mystery and sublimity at once.

The revelations of Mr. Gilbert’s conducting was that this Mass was not a totally subdued religious ritual. The chorus Cum Sancto Spiritus was as light at an old English dance, bass-baritone Eric Owens tripped along in Et in Spiritum sanctum, the final Dona Nobis Pacem was a chorus which had gone through the hellish Crucifixion and now was on its way to a joyous paradise.

E. Owens (© Mario Acosta)

Besides the formidable Mr. Owens, who has had a splendid working relationship with Mr. Gilbert before, the mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter sung the penultimate section, Agnus Dei, with such melodious loveliness that one imagined it not in the Mass but in a manger...with a child.

D. Röschmann (© Jim Rakete)

This performance had no stars per se, but soprano Dorothea Röschmann sung her solos and duets with Ms. von Otter with all the sensitivity necessary. The tenor, Steve Davislim, has a good voice, but both movement and style were highly operatic, far from the picture which Mr. Gilbert was trying to paint.

Yet still, this B Minor Mass had a variance that was truly appealing. Those who believe that Handel was the more “dramatic” composer because of his English influence would have to rethink that after this show. Perhaps because this was not a piece on order or on commission, or because Bach, in his last years, was ready to let his heart take over, the work had drama which could put Handel in the shade. From the opening Kyrie through the canonical choruses, through the delightful violin and flute duets with soprano and mezzo, Mr. Gilbert produced a work with rhythmic courage, tonal exactitude, never over-labored, over-heavy majesty.

My only gripes were that we had to have an intermission (this Mass should not give a chance for audiences to shed their feelings, have a drink and come back for a little more), and to have applause instead of silence.

The woman sitting next to me asked if I “enjoyed” the performance. I nodded briefly, resisting the urge to talk about her coat made from dozens of dead minks. What I wanted to say was, “No, I didn’t ‘enjoy’ the performance. I enjoy chocolate bars and operas and Thai food and walks through Malaysian jungles. Mr. Gilbert’s B Minor Mass was not in that category. Whether a believe in the Church Eternal or not, this was–like Dante and Michelangelo–a glimpse into mortal man’s attempts at immortality.

Harry Rolnick



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