By Matthew Guerrieri
Believe it or not, there are places in the world where performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B minor Mass are fairly rare. In Boston, however, rare is the season that passes without at least one opportunity to hear that monument. On Saturday, it was Emmanuel Music offering the Mass as its concert season opener, led by its director, Ryan Turner. And the performance demonstrated both the advantages of such familiarity and, perhaps, the dangers.
The collective accomplishment on display was such that one listened hard for faults. The chorus was phenomenal: clean, precise, moving as one organism from harmony to harmony, vowel to vowel to an uncanny degree. The soloists - 12 in total, all drawn from the choir - ranged from solid to superb. The orchestra, packed with familiar Boston faces, took to the music with stylistic aplomb. Technically, the performance was largely unimpeachable.
Except, for the most part, that’s all it was. The opportunity to turn such a collection of talent loose on Bach’s score seems to have been far more the end than the means. The rendering almost never went anywhere near any sort of extreme. A taut thread of dramatic tension rarely emerged; the more perilous aspects of religious experience - the obsessive, the hermetic, the ecstatic - were not in evidence.
There were hints of such territory: soprano Susan Consoli and violinist Heidi Braun-Hill holding onto the roller coaster passagework in “Laudamus te’’ with incongruously pert cheerfulness, intimating the absurd largesse of grace; the chorus dropping to a pallid, eerie evenness at the anticipation of resurrection in the “Confiteor’’; baritone Sumner Thompson preaching “Et in Spiritum Sanctum’’ with ringing, Puritan zeal; mezzo-soprano Krista River and the orchestral strings pushing the “Agnus Dei’’ into something approaching the ache of desperation. But such moments seemed fragments of a different interpretation, one more eagerly risky, one yearning for the comfort of redemption rather than presupposing it.
To be fair, the tendency of Boston performances of the Mass in past seasons has been toward such comforts. Maybe the familiarity has inured us against the sheer, wondrous strangeness of the work, the Lutheran Bach rummaging through his consummate musical toolbox for just the right instrument to dissect each stage of the Catholic Mass’s long-evolved drama. The proficiency of Emmanuel’s performance was masterpiece-worthy; and Bach’s B minor Mass is, most assuredly, a masterpiece. But that’s not all that it is.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.