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Ton Koopman conducts Bach’s Mass in B Minor

Ton Koopman conducts Bach’s Mass in B Minor
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28 Oct 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker
Ton Koopman

RIAS Kammerchor

  • Johann Sebastian Bach
    Mass in B minor, BWV 232

    Yetzabel Arias Fernandez soprano, Wiebke Lehmkuhl contralto, Tilman Lichdi tenor, Klaus Mertens bass, RIAS Kammerchor, Justin Doyle chorus master

A Protestant kantor sets the Latin text of the Catholic liturgy of the Mass to music – and in doing so, creates a timeless interdenominational work. The Mass in B Minor is not only Johann Sebastian Bach’s final vocal work, it is also his “opus ultimum”, his musical legacy. In this large ensemble Mass setting, whose gestation lasted decades and which combines rewritten movements with parodies of existing pieces of music, Bach brings together everything that distinguishes his composing: a variety of musical forms and styles, contrapuntal density and concertante lightness, objective contemplation and subjective emotional language. From the first desperate scream-like cries of Kyrie of the chorus to the final petition, “Dona nobis pacem”, which begins meditatively and closes with festive rejoicing accompanied by trumpets and drums, Bach presents the whole cosmos of Baroque music making in 27 musical numbers.

It is probable that Bach himself never heard a complete performance of his Mass. It was too long even for a large-scale ceremonial service. The great age of the B Minor Mass began in the 19th century as part of the Bach revival initiated by the Berlin Sing-Akademie. The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the piece for the first time in 1885 to mark the 200th anniversary of Bach’s birth. From the Second World War onwards, there was a performance with one of the major Berlin choral societies almost every year until 1985. However, the orchestra has only programmed the work two times since then: in 1999 under the direction of Claudio Abbado and in 2006 with Sir Roger Norrington.

This season, Ton Koopman, who made his debut with the Philharmoniker in 2010 conducting works by Bach and Haydn, performs the B Minor Mass together with the Philharmoniker and the RIAS Kammerchor. Koopman, who is not only a conductor but also an organist and harpsichordist, is considered one of the great specialists in the work of the Leipzig Thomaskantor. When conducting, Koopman sees himself as “the first among equals”, however, he has the reputation of being a hard taskmaster when it comes to performing Bach’s music to his satisfaction. His credo: “We are privileged to perform beautiful music by a person who is more genius than we.”

 

The Art of Sacred Vocal Polyphony

Johann Sebastian Bachʼs Mass in B minor

The first partial public performance of the B minor Mass took place in Hamburg 36 years after Bach’s death. In 1786, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, music director of the city’s five principal churches, conducted the work’s Credo section in a concert to benefit the Medical Institute for the Poor. The occasion was doubly significant: not only did this performance of sacred music take place in a concert hall, it was the last of four benefit concerts which had also included music by Handel, Salieri and Gluck. The newspaper reported that “one had the opportunity to observe the various styles in their compositions, and, in particular, to marvel at the immortal Sebastian Bach’s five-voice Credo, which is one of the most admirable musical pieces I have ever heard.”

This was remarkable approbation from the press. C.P.E. Bach himself realized that his father’s composition transcended the conventional liturgical parameters of sacred music and was not out of place in the concert hall. We do not know the extent to which he was aware of details surrounding his father’s last great vocal work, although he had been involved in preparing the Kyrie and Gloria parts for performance in 1733. Directly after Sebastian’s death, Emanuel assumed personal responsibility for two large projects that had recently been occupying the late composer: he saw into print the unfinished Art of Fugue, and, in order to make known the exemplary qualities of what he called this “great Catholic Mass”, he ordered a series of fair copies of the full score of the B minor Mass, which had only recently been completed.

Emanuel recognized a certain relationship between these two dissimilar compositions. The Art of Fugue was devoted to instrumental counterpoint with all its subtleties, while the Mass represented a superlative contribution to the art of vocal polyphony in all its variety. Already in 1733, in his dedication of the B minor Mass to the electoral court in Dresden, Bach tellingly referred to his creation – then comprising only the Kyrie and Gloria – as a “small token of what I have achieved in the science of musique”. All the more justifiably, then, must the work that he expanded into a complete mass setting towards the end of his life be deemed a supreme example of sacred vocal music, the art to which the Thomaskantor had largely dedicated himself for more than a quarter century.

Confining one’s account to its first two principal sections, the origins of the B minor Mass can be quickly told. The Kyrie-Gloria was composed early in 1733, during the period of national mourning following the death of Saxon elector Friedrich August I (King Augustus the Strong). With all music-making proscribed for six months, Bach had leisure to produce a work of homage with which he could procure a court title and upgrade his status in Leipzig. The Lutheran composer devised a clever stratagem: to create, without compromising his own faith, a sacred work that would also be acceptable to the Catholic Dresden court. A mass setting was most suitable, being part of the common ground of traditional sacred music. It took a few more years before Bach reached his declared goal: in 1736, he was finally appointed court composer to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Until 1749 he was cited in the Saxon court calendar with this honorary title, which officially sanctioned his Leipzig duties as those of a Kapellmeister-Kantor, as Bach himself had understood them from the outset.

In his last decade of life, he completed his Mass of 1733, adding three further numbered sections to the original autograph score: II. Symbolum Nicenum, III. Sanctus and IV. Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem. He mixed newly composed music with adaptations of existing works. Even more importantly, because the composition’s dimensions exceeded the framework of any divine service, Catholic or Lutheran, he seems to have written without a liturgical complete performance in mind, although such a mass could have been given in Leipzig’s principal churches by dividing it over different Sundays.

In composing the choral and solo movements of the Mass, Bach was guided by their textual content, but he invested the music with a wide variety of styles: ranging from the stile antico of the Palestrina school (for example, in the opening movement of the Credo) to various concertante textures, from polyphonic choral writing with independent orchestra to a cappella writing with continuo accompaniment, from free counterpoint to strict canon in the “Confiteor”, from the orchestrally accompanied solo to the simple trio. In selecting and incorporating his own earlier music, Bach turned to works of special musical potency. Often it would have been easier to write a wholly new movement. When he chose not to do so – for example, with the “Crucifixus” and “Agnus Dei” – he must have believed that the existing movements possessed a substance and potential which he had not yet fully exploited. Thus, the choral passacaglia “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” from the Weimar cantata BWV 12 of 1714 is both more sophisticated and more profound in its new form as the “Crucifixus”. This is evident in the refined instrumentation but even more in the subtle and expressive rhetoric, for example at the closing words “et sepultus est” – rendered with sudden a cappella writing and a modulation from minor to major as preparation for the “Et resurrexit”.

Bach toiled virtually until his death on this monumental project, which suggests that he regarded the Mass as a kind of artistic bequest. He had long since ceased to be occupied with providing sacred musical repertoire or fulfilling any further ambitions. His chief interest now, as a scholar-composer devoted to his “musical science”, lay in adequately formulating a summa of his art. In the field of instrumental music, he accomplished this with the Art of Fugue, in vocal music, with the B minor Mass – not least in order to anchor his own art in tradition. Consequently, he went back to Palestrina, whose masses served as an inspiration for his own final contribution to the genre, and even further back to Gregorian chant in the “Credo” and “Confiteor” sections of the Symbolum Nicenum. The Mass in B minor thus represents not only the idea of vocal polyphony in its entire breadth but also – as is unmistakably indicated by the integration of chant – that of sacred music per se. Bach accepted the challenge inseparably associated with texts of the early Christian service that transcend linguistic, temporal and confessional boundaries.

Christoph Wolff

Translation: Richard Evidon

Ton Koopman, born in Zwolle (The Netherlands) in 1944, studied musicology, organ and harpsichord in Amsterdam. He received the Prix dʼExcellence for both instruments. Fascinated by Baroque music and by historically informed performance practice on period instruments, he formed the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra in 1979 and the Amsterdam Baroque Choir in 1992. In the course of his career he has performed in leading concert halls and at international festivals on all five continents and as an organist has played on the finest instruments in Europe. Together with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir he has appeared regularly as harpsichordist and conductor at the major European concert venues, in New York and Tokyo, with a repertoire ranging from the early Baroque to the late Classics. He has also conducted some of the most famous orchestras in Europe, the United States and Japan, including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston, Chicago and Vienna Symphony Orchestras, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Munich Philharmonic. Between 1994 and 2004 Ton Koopman recorded the complete Bach cantatas, an ambitious project which received many awards; this was followed in 2005-2014 with a complete recording of Buxtehude’s works. Recipient of many distinctions, Koopman teaches at the University of Leiden and was made an honorary professor at the Musikhochschule Lübeck in 2016. He is honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London, artistic director of the Festival Itinéraire Baroque in France and artistic advisor of the Guangzhou Opera House in China. He has edited the complete Handel Organ Concertos for Breitkopf & Härtel and has published new editions of Handel’s Messiah and Buxtehudeʼs Das Jüngste Gericht (Carus). Ton Koopman made his debut conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2010 with works by Bach and Haydn; in February 2017 he led the students of the Karajan Academy in a concert with Bach, Haydn and Schubert.

The Cuban soprano Yetzabel AriasFernandez studied choral conducting at the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory and singing at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. She went on to complete her training in Italy at the Accademia Internazionale della Musica in Milan under Vincenzo Mann and Roberto Gini. The singer has won numerous competitions and regularly appears with Italian Early music ensembles such as the Accademia Bizantina, La Venexiana and I Barocchisti, and with conductors including Ottavio Dantone, Diego Fasolis, Jordi Savall and Helmuth Rilling. Since 2013, she has been working more closely with Ton Koopman, performing works by Bach, Handel, Mozart and Haydn. In the spring of 2017, she joined him on a European tour together with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra with Bach’s St Matthew Passion. On the opera stage, Yetzabel Arias’ roles have included the messenger in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Piacere in Handel’s Trionfo del Tempo and del Disinganno and Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She has been a frequent guest at the International Handel Festival in Karlsruhe in roles such as Agileo in Teseo. Yetzabel Arias now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Wiebke Lehmkuhl, born in Oldenburg, received her vocal training from Ulla Groenewold and from Hanna Schwarz at the Hamburg University of Music and Theatre. After guest engagements at Kiel Opera House and the state operas of Hamburg and Hanover, she joined Zurich Opera as a permanent ensemble member in the 2008/09 season. Here she appeared as Erda (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Annina (Der Rosenkavalier), Hedwige (Guillaume Tell), and in concert performances of Handel’s Messiah and Schumann’s oratorio Paradise and the Peri. The contralto has also appeared at renowned opera houses such as the Opéra Bastille in Paris and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 2012, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as third lady in a new production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The following year, she performed there again in a concert performance of Walter Braunfels’ Jeanne d’Arc in the role of Lison. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is also successful as a concert and oratorio singer. In 2011 she made her debut at the Vienna Musikverein and at the Lucerne Festival in performances of Handel’s La resurrezione, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Among the conductors she has also worked with are Reinhard Goebel, Daniel Harding, René Jacobs, Marc Minkowski and Kent Nagano. Wiebke Lehmkuhl made her debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2013 in Schumann’s Faust Scenes, conducted by Daniel Harding. She last appeared with the orchestra a few days ago in C.P.E. Bach’s cantata Heilig, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Tilman Lichdi grew up in Heilbronn and studied trumpet under Günther Beetz in Mannheim before changing to studying voice in Würzburg with Charlotte Lehmann. From 2005 to 2013, the tenor was a permanent member of the ensemble at the Staatsstheater in Nuremberg where he appeared in roles including Daland’s steersman in The Flying Dutchman, Count Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Tamino in the Magic Flute and other Mozart roles. Tilman Lichdi has also established himself internationally on the concert stage and in recitals, particularly as a result of his portrayal of the Evangelist in Bach’s oratorios and Passions. In 2010 he made his acclaimed US debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the Evangelist in the St John Passion under the direction of Bernard Labadie. Lichdi has also worked together with Ton Koopman, Thomas Hengelbrock, Peter Dijkstra, Frieder Bernius, Kent Nagano, Hans-Christoph Rademann, Teodor Currentzis and Herbert Blomstedt in concerts in Europe, the USA and South America. Tilman Lichdi was a winner of the 2012 Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis in the performing arts category. With these concerts, he makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Klaus Mertens studied music and teaching. He received his vocal training with Else Bischof-Bornes and Jakob Stämpfli (lieder, concert singing and oratorio) and Peter Massmann (opera). The bass-baritone has worked closely with many conductors specializing in early music, including Philippe Herreweghe, René Jacobs, Ton Koopman and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Much in demand as an interpreter of Baroque music, he took part in the complete recording of Bach’s cantatas with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Ton Koopman. He has also appeared with other distinguished conductors in the Classical repertory, namely Herbert Blomstedt, Andris Nelsons and Kent Nagano. Klaus Mertens also appears regularly at major international festivals in Europe, the United States and Japan. He is also a committed lieder recitalist with a repertory extending from the earliest contributions to the medium to the present day. Klaus Mertens, who was awarded the Telemann prize of the city of Magdeburg in 2016, made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in January 2010 in works by J. S. Bach conducted by Ton Koopman.

The RIAS Chamber Choir, founded in 1948 in Berlin, sets standards in nearly all domains of musical culture – from celebrated historically informed interpretations of the Renaissance and the Baroque through works of Romanticism up to the most demanding world premieres, in which the possibilities of contemporary vocal music are newly defined. Leading artistic personalities have shaped the choir as chief conductors: Uwe Gronostay (1972-1986) laid the foundations for historical performance practice; Marcus Creed (1987-2001) achieved the increasing internationalisation of the ensemble; Daniel Reuss (2003-2006) focused on 20th-century classics and strengthened connections with cooperating partners at home and abroad; Hans-Christoph Rademann (2007-2015) placed particular attention on the German music history of the 17th to 19th century. Numerous awards and prizes document the artistic journey and the high international reputation of the RIAS Chamber Choir, an ensemble of the Rundfunk Orchester und Chöre GmbH (roc Berlin). Starting with the 2017/18 season, Justin Doyle took over as new principal conductor. An enduring and fruitful collaboration binds the choir to René Jacobs, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and the Munich Chamber Orchestra. In addition, the RIAS Chamber Choir works together with conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Andrea Marcon, Thomas Hengelbrock, Florian Helgath and Ottavio Dantone. The RIAS Chamber Choir has worked closely with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1949. Their last joint undertaking was in October 2012, when they performed Vivaldi’s Gloria RV 589 under the direction of Andrea Marcon. Furthermore, within the Originalklang series, the choir performed Handel’s oratorio Belshazzar together with the Accademia Bizantina in June 2016.

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