at Hammerschmidt Chapel

January 20


at Orchestra Hall

January 25

At the head of just about everyone’s list of the greatest musical works of the Western world is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. It is among a half dozen or so masterpieces that are flawless in virtually every aspect of their composition, and it represents the last statement on sacred music by a man who spent his life composing it, the composer who still reigns as the supreme musical genius of all time.

Bach was a professional musical craftsman who never composed without a fee, or at least without a very practical purpose–obtaining a better job, training his children, etc. Bach accepted the job of cantor at Leipzig during his middle years and remained there until his death, though he constantly tried to improve his position. Despite composing works unparalleled in quality and quantity during these years, he was not much appreciated by his employers (a squabbling town council), who thought his work teaching and looking after the schoolboys at Saint Thomas’s as important as his composing for and supervising performances at the two town churches.

Bach wrote to just about anyone who would listen about how miserable he was at Leipzig, asking them to help him find another job. One of his more interesting pleas went to Friedrich Augustus II, the elector of Saxony; Bach sent him parts of what he termed “an insignificant example of my skill in musique.” The parts were to a missa setting in Latin, the kyrie and gloria from the Roman Catholic liturgy; the sacred music Bach would have composed for Augustus’s Dresden court would have had Catholic settings, a great departure from Bach’s own Lutheran tradition. The work wasn’t performed in Dresden, nor was Bach offered a position, though after another petition three years later Augustus did grant Bach the honorary title of court composer.

Late in his life, about the time he was compiling anthologies such as the Musical Offering and the Art of the Fugue, Bach finished the mass by adding the other three movements of the Roman ordinary. The overall scope and scale was so grand and the textual liberties and titling so unusual that any practical or liturgical use would have been virtually inconceivable–there was no such thing as a “concert” mass in the 18th century. Many musicologists and performers argue that Bach did not conceive the work as a whole–and it is undeniable that the pieces were written at separate times and that Bach borrowed heavily from earlier pieces, a frequent practice of his. Yet all the parts were gathered together and numbered liturgically, not chronologically, under one hard cover. (The Romantic notion that Bach was thinking only of posterity must also be categorically rejected, for such a notion would have been totally foreign to him.)

As with several of his late works, Bach’s exact intentions in writing this work remain unknown. It seems entirely probable that, being aware the end could not be too far off, Bach would choose to be uncharacteristically impractical and complete some pieces that presented special compositional problems. He could let his imagination run wild and conceive and work out as grand a mass setting as he liked.

Last month was the second time in the past few years that two local organizations performed the mass one soon after the other. In 1985, the Bach tercentenary year, Basically Bach and Music of the Baroque offered a unique comparison of period-instrument and modern-instrument performances of the work. Both recent concerts were on modern instruments, a commentary on the state of early music in Chicago. Still, there were some interesting differences of conception. In a nutshell, the Chicago String Ensemble scaled the work down to a minimum, using the Joshua Rifkin version for eight vocal soloists, while the Chicago Symphony beefed the work up to a maximum, having nearly eight times the Rifkin number in its chorus.

Rifkin’s reductions stem from a radical conjecture on his part that performances of Bach’s sacred music at Leipzig would have been with one singer per part or eight total for the B-minor Mass, allowing for the double chorus. He makes much of the 18th-century distinction between concertists, singers who sang solo as well as ensemble sections, and ripienists, singers who doubled the ensemble sections, or who, according to Rifkin, amplified the vocal texture rather than were an integral part of it. He claims that Bach did not usually incorporate ripienists because there were generally only eight singers available for most services at Saint Thomas’s, and uses the fact that there is only one set of parts for each vocal line as evidence of this. Since, according to Rifkin, some of these singers were always sick or doubled on instruments, those ripienists who were available were probably used as concertists.

What Rifkin conveniently ignores, or may be unaware of, is that Bach specified in his famous memorandum to the Leipzig town council exactly what minimum forces were needed to properly perform church services. He clearly stated, in his own handwriting, that a choir must have three to four singers per part.

In fairness to Rifkin’s views, they would be grossly misrepresented if judged only by the recent Chicago String Ensemble performance. For one thing, conductor Alan Heatherington incorporated an orchestral ensemble nearly three times the size of the vocal ensemble–actually nearly six times, if you consider that most of the choral sections used only four singers. Those proportions are not only contrary to everything we know about Bach’s sense of symmetry, but are even more lopsided than Sir Georg Solti’s use of more than 80 voices with an orchestra of less than half that number. (Even Rifkin preserved some sense of Bach’s original balance by claiming that Bach was also limited to one player per part on strings and winds, with no double bass.) Heatherington used three first and three second violins, included bass, and doubled the winds. Obviously the tiny “chorus” had quite a struggle matching the power of that ensemble, which was, of course, made up of modern instruments that create far more sound than their counterparts from Bach’s time. Rifkin used early instruments, which would seem a minimum in making his scaled-down version credible. Bach’s specifications for the minimum size of an orchestra, found in the memo mentioned above, indicated one player per part on winds, two to three players each for first and second violins, two violas, two cellos, and one double bass–which would perfectly balance a choir consisting of three to four singers per part.

The singers Heatherington employed would certainly be credible enough in a normal performance of the mass; Andrew Schultze was even the second bass on the Rifkin recording of the solo-voice version. But in addition to the weak projection that was virtually unavoidable under the circumstances, this chorus suffered from poor balancing and ensembling. Heatherington has proved himself a master of instrumental conducting but hasn’t the slightest idea what to do with a choir, scaled down or otherwise. The singers seemed to be totally on their own–a disaster when it comes to a complex score that demands purity of tone and tight ensembling.

Sopranos Rebecca Patterson and Alicia Purcell sang with excessive vibrato, and their timbres didn’t match at all. Still, Patterson did a masterful job with the “Laudamus te,” trills and all. Tenor Donald Doig sang with a more or less pure tone, but often strained for high notes and tended to be slightly below pitch; tenor Kurt Hansen had a slighter sound but managed to fully encompass his range. Mezzo-soprano Emily Lodine had a nice sound and good control over her vibrato, which unfortunately was still too much for this style of music; mezzo Patricia Deckert had a pleasant but somewhat excessive voice. Bass Jeffrey Horvath had a nice deep tone, but was unflexible and unfocused in pitch, sliding carelessly through runs; Andrew Schultze was more focused but never as audible.

Conductor Heatherington seemed completely out of his element, proving that one shouldn’t dabble in Bach without a special affinity for it. His tempi, although refined, were often unbearably slow, and his ensemble texture and balance were often quite cluttered, even though using soloists instead of a choir should theoretically have cleaned up the sound. Not surprisingly, the instrumental texture was much cleaner than the messy vocal texture, although there were numerous brass and horn flubs, which are inexcusable on modern instruments. But by far the biggest problem was Heatherington’s inability to communicate any overall musical vision, resulting in a very disjunct and unsatisfactory concert. I found myself utterly bored, unable even to take solace in Bach’s magnificent musical architecture, since it was virtually unrecognizable.

One certainly couldn’t make that complaint against the CSO performance led by Solti, although it too was lopsided, especially in the two-to-one ratio of choristers to instrumentalists–in the grand Romantic tradition of Bach performances that Solti so unabashedly subscribes to. In many ways the only difference between the Solti conception of the B-minor Mass and of the concert of all Verdi opera choruses he led a few months ago was the composer’s names. Solti sees the B-minor Mass as pure 19th-century opera, much as he does the Saint Matthew Passion. Of course this vision has little to do with Bach, but it is an interesting approach when given the drama and conviction Solti brings to it. He can create a large canvas of feelings and moods that is reflected in his widely divergent tempi and dynamics.

There are certain features one would expect from a Solti-CSO Mass in B Minor, among them the flawless diction and magnificent sound of Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus. It’s a tribute to this glorious ensemble that not only could every line and every word be clearly heard and understood, but that Hillis brought out a clarity rare in ensembles one-tenth its size. One would also expect first-rate though very heavy-handed instrumental playing from the CSO, which was also the case, with the notable exceptions of oboist Ray Still and horn player Dale Clevenger, who were having evenings so bad that, given their track records, one could only feel sorry for them. Organist Richard Webster had his share of trouble trying to blend in and keep up with the ensemble.

The solo singers were not particularly suited to this music, but fit Solti’s Romantic conception of the work. Bass Gwynne Howell took the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with a sound so heavy and unfocused as to virtually gloss over Bach’s elegant runs. Baritone William Shimell fared much better with the “Et in Spiritum Sanctum.” Tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz was in consistently clear and strong voice, and soprano Felicity Lott did a credible job with the first soprano part.

The second soprano part was given to mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who also sang all of the alto arias. Von Otter–with her beautiful, smoke color, flawless phrasing, excellent projection, and evenly distributed vibrato–was the real star of the evening, bringing astounding beauty and expression to virtually everything she sang. One could quibble about the appropriateness of her technique for this music, but she brings so much else to it that one could scarcely complain; hers was a masterful performance to be long remembered.