The CUMS Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Roger NorringtonManfred Esser

The Mass in B Minor BWV 232 is the consecration of Bach’s entire musical and compositional life – a summa of artistic achievement in his sacred music. Its construction anthologises all of the techniques that Bach learned to master throughout his life, containing everything from artificial orchestral fugues to galant operatic duets and arias. CUMS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, gave a stylish account of this great work, performing with a certain joie de vivre throughout the evening.

“CUMS Symphony Orchestra...gave a stylish account of this great work, performing with a certain joie de vivre throughout the evening.”

In the tutti sections, CUMSSO generally produced a cohesive orchestral sound, though there were slight issues with balance from the outset, no doubt due to the boomy nature of King’s College Chapel. The double basses and cellos were often too heavy to the detriment of instruments such as the chamber organ – using a harpsichord for some tutti sections would have perhaps resolved some balance issues and also added to the vitality of the performance, not that it was lacking in any case. Several passages of orchestral playing had some real flair - the 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo' and 'Cum Sancto Spiritu', with their fast string writing, were played not only precisely but joyously by CUMSSO, who seemed to sincerely enjoy playing for the gesturally reserved Sir Roger Norrington, who at the mighty age of 83 still had both players and listeners under his spell.

The arias and duets used a subsection of the orchestra, allowing for several student players to showcase their talents through the accurate execution of Bach’s challenging obbligato parts. The violinist Er-Gene Kahng, flautist Charlotte Eves and cor anglais player Rachel Becker were particularly impressive in this respect. Nick Smith was also outstanding in his tackling of Bach’s devilishly high trumpet writing.

Having seen Norrington conduct several times before, I was braced for an exciting evening of showmanship. While there were no direct acknowledgements of the audience during the performance, I had the feeling that many of the veteran conductor’s gestures were meant just as much for the orchestra as they were for the audience. In other words, Norrington’s staring down of the double basses during a tonic pedal, or dramatic pointing at the chorus in the double choir 'Osanna' aimed to educate both the players and the audience about how Bach’s music works. Perhaps the most fantastic example of this was at the beginning of the aria 'Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus'. Scored for horn, two bassoons and continuo, Norrington spent the first minute of the aria smiling at the resting first violins, as if saying “Isn’t this music wonderful?”

Norrington’s particular view of historically informed performance includes a zero tolerance policy on vibrato. He had clearly tried to impart this to the student players of CUMSSO, resulting in varying degrees of success. One should note that skilful playing without vibrato is an intensely difficult challenge for any orchestra let alone a student one and I commend those musicians who rose to it. Some weaker players, especially within the woodwind section and back desks of the strings, struggled with this new style of playing or had simply disregarded Norrington’s request. Certain tutti sections were therefore reminiscent of monumental twentieth century performances of the work, whereas arias and duets using only principle players came closer to the sound that Norrington is famous for. This resulted in a somewhat stylistically confused performance.

The Cambridge University Symphony Chorus matched the orchestra in terms of their energy and excellently articulated the text, which can too often get lost in a venue such as King’s College Chapel. From the outset, the chorus consistently paid attention to detail, such as in the sensitive phrasing of the 'Kyrie'. The transition into 'Et resurrexit' was truly magnificent with the audience stunned by the contrast in mood that the chorus achieved. It was a shame that some of the opening fugal entries were uneasy, though it must be stressed that the sopranos in particular dealt exquisitely well with Bach’s delicate and high writing. The soprano soloist, Elin Manahan Thomas, was equally as impressive and stood out in a stellar lineup of young singers.

Bertie Baigent’s programme notes were thorough in their dealings with the historical problems of dating the Mass in B minor. However, it would have been nice to see a more user-friendly blow by blow description of the four sections of the mass to aid audience engagement. Baigent’s notes were unfortunately let down by misinforming the audience that Bach’s suffix 'Soli Deo gloria' appears only at the very end of the mass, when the autograph clearly shows the suffix at the end of the both the 'Kyrie' and the 'Gloria', undermining any argument made for Bach’s consideration of the Mass as cohesive unified whole.

CUMSSO and the Cambridge University Symphony Chorus undoubtedly did justice to Bach’s Mass in B Minor in what was a scintillating and stimulating evening, with some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments. It was unfortunate that the demands of Sir Roger Norrington proved too challenging for the majority of the orchestra who, playing on modern instruments, were unable to maintain a consistent sense of style throughout the work. Nevertheless, the fact that a student orchestra would even attempt to play in the historical style demanded by Norrington is a testament to the talent and quality of Cambridge’s finest musicians

Sponsored links