Johann Sebastian Bach´s Mass in B minor is a marvel paradoxically born of earthly needs and made up mostly of remodelled earlier music of the composer. But it sounds absolutely unitary! Moreover, it is so long that it can´t be used liturgically. It stands with the two Passions as the greatest monuments of the German Baroque. Now two Argentine groups have given us a great night at the Auditorio de Belgrano. First, some necessary background.
There are four short protestant masses of his (only Kyrie and Gloria) quite beautiful but rarely done. The big Mass is the result of Bach´s tensions with his Leipzig employers and the desire to be named court composer to the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland; he wanted to be recognised by the Catholic court in Dresden, and therefore, write a mass that also included the Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. Although in 1736 he was officially promoted to the appointment he seeked, "Hofkapellmeister", he remained at Leipzig! And the Mass was never played during his lifetime.
In 1733 he had already written the Kyrie and Gloria, both much longer than in the four masses mentioned above; they last almost an hour! And they use a five-voice choir and ample orchestration. But as he wrote the remaining parts in the last decade of his life, he got the appointment without having done the Catholic fragments...It would seem that he created the whole vast structure as a legacy of his mature genius in sacred music, much as happens with his Art of Fugue in that particular field.
Gradually this Mass was discovered and admired; probably Beethoven felt its challenge when he composed his monumental Missa Solemnis, arguably the other peak of the genre. Bach´s Mass has such immense variety in both the choral and the soloists´ music that the hearer is constantly surprised: consumate mastery and vivid inspiration never flag.
In the Twentieth Century the Baroque began to be understood only in the Thirties with artists such as Günther Ramin and Adolf Busch leading the way. After WWII and with the coming of LP recording, style began to change, shedding some of the Romantic distortions; but at first the phrasing was too square. Karl Richter gave impetus and intensity to his readings, and was almost worshipped in our city during the Sixties (Amigos de la Música). Then came the historicist movement in which we currently are: the use of Baroque instruments, faster speeds, impacting rhythms. Some were moderate, like Rilling; others too extreme, like Parrott; the main trend was imposed by such great artists as Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Gardiner.
Here Mario Videla evolved from his Richter influence to that of Rilling, and he has done splendid work with his Bach Academy. Many times he had the collaboration of the Grupo de Canto Coral (GCC) led by Néstor Andrenacci. On the other hand, the Baroque violin virtuoso Manfred Krämer founded in his native Córdoba La Barroca del Suquía, certainly our best instrumental group for that period. And last year Andrenacci and Krämer joined forces for an admirable concert in which they gave us Bach´s six Motets.
Now they tackled an even bigger challenge, the great Mass, and have emerged from the test with flying colors. For this occasion La Barroca was 24-strong and incorporated great instrumentalists, such as Gabriel Pérsico (flute), Diego Nadra (oboe and oboe d´amore), the splendid trumpet solo player Cristian Muñoz from Chile, bassoonist Franco Bonino (Chile) and Emmanel Frankenberg from Holland in natural horn. As to the GCC, it added to its 23 singers four more and they all were fresh beautiful voices, honed to perfection by the talent of Andrenacci: disciplined, vivid music making by all players and choristers.
The soloists were uneven: the best were baritone Federico Finocchiaro, always steady and clean; Soledad de la Rosa as Second Soprano ( a mezzo register) showed her musicality and powerful lows. Cecilia Arroyo was correct though a bit white; countertenor Martín Oro started poorly but then found his form; tenor Agustín Novillo´s timbre is too unsettled for Bach.
We´ve had in recent years two visits by the wonderful Gächinger Kantorei (with Rilling and Rademann) plus Videla´s very honorable version closing the trajectory of Festivales Musicales. Audiences greeted them enthusiastically and so it was now: the battle for Bach´s Mass has long been won.