Guest post: The only way is up: Bach, Singet and the Mass in B Minor
Singing Bach is a little like mountaineering, I sometimes think. Not only is JSB the greatest musician of all time (sorry, Mozart), but no other composer requires so much energy and concentration to rehearse, or so much balance and nerve to perform. The arcing lines and dancing rhythms, the switches from darkest tragedy to wild joy, the sheer muscular athleticism and dexterity required … you can ascend to dizzying heights, but only if you use all your muscles, including some you didn’t know you had. It’s upwards, always upwards.
To make things even more challenging, we in the Epiphoni Consort are scaling two pinnacles of the repertoire this week, as part of the CLS’s Bach and the Cosmos season. The first is the 1727 double-choir motet Singet dem Herrn (Sing Unto the Lord), with its delicate balance between exuberance and pathos, which we’ll be singing with the superb baritone Roderick Williams. The second is the real biggie – the mightiest, meatiest choral piece of them all, the Mass in B Minor, sometimes described as the summation of JSB’s career, where we’ll be conducted by one of the greatest Bach interpreters alive, John Butt. As one of my fellow singers commented at rehearsal the other night, “there really are a lot of notes”. Not so much mountaineering as marathon mountaineering, if that’s a thing.
Of course it’s also a pleasure, and none of us would be doing it if it weren’t. Singet I first sang at university, and it’s a delight to re-encounter it (though it’s more fiendish than I remember: apparently I’m not as athletic as I was). As well as drilling those notes, we’ve spent a long time focusing on the Lutheran text, which is deeply poignant, especially during the chorale section in the middle of the work: “Gott weiß, wir sind nur Staub. Gleich wie das Gras vom Rechen, Ein Blum und fallendes Laub …” (“God knows we are but dust. Just as the grass that is mown, a flower or falling leaf …”). Singing it is a powerful experience; hopefully listening will be even more so.
The B-Minor Mass I first heard in my teens (in that legendary John Eliot Gardiner recording), but I’ve never actually sung it before – all the more reason our concert on Saturday feels special. This work, which Bach assembled from a collage of cantata movements he’d composed in Leipzig was intended to show off his skills, and catch the attention of a new employer across in Saxony. In that way, I suppose, it’s the greatest job application of all time. (Not that it worked: Bach spent the rest of his life grinding away in Leipzig.)
The Mass is utterly encyclopedic: from elaborate fugues and dizzying double-choir counterpoint to the simplest, slenderest solo arias and plainchant. Singing it, you feel like you’re exploring the furthest reaches of Bach’s architectural imagination. The way he builds the opening cries of “Kyrie”, like placing the great foundation stones of a cathedral, to the filigree of the Sanctus, where we in the bass section sing a joyous, swaying melody that descends through the octaves while the higher voices make shimmering patterns up in the heavens. Encyclopedic though it is, after a while you don’t see the individual textures or effects: you just feel the heft of the whole structure, its solidity and profundity. That, too, is rather moving.
As I hope is clear, it’s tricky, learning to keep your head at these altitudes, but it’s also hugely rewarding. Hopefully we’ll make it all the way to the top. Wish us luck.