Bach – B Minor Mass / New York Philharmonic 3-13-13

This was one of the most absorbing live music experiences I have had in a while. Well, at least since last Friday – it’s been rather a red letter week in terms of concerts. As far as last night is concerned, Alan Gilbert and the NY Phil and the singers did BWV 232 full justice.

The orchestra and the New York Choral Singers did themselves proud the whole way through, but I particularly liked the transition from the last bit of the Credo to the first part of the Sanctus, where there is a meter change (I think it goes from 4 or 2 into 6/8 or something like that) and the orchestra and chorus just rolled forward with that in a way that was big and exciting and just all around brilliant. The choral singing in the first “gloria” and in “cum sancto spiritu” in part 1 was thrilling, and we were also treated to a very atmospheric “et incarnatus est” in the Credo.

There were a number of soloists from the orchestra who interacted with the singers during the arias. The flute in the soprano/tenor duet “domine deus, rex coelestis” (you hear a bit more of the flute in the following choral section) and the oboe in the first mezzo aria were the standouts for me, though the rather mellow violin in (I think) the “laudamus te” was also a pleasure. There was also some really exciting orchestral playing during the “gratias agimus” chorus, where the brass sound sort of slices up through every thing else, as well as some wonderful interactions among the various orchestral parts in the “et resurrexit” chorus towards the middle of the Credo. The New York Philharmonic: an awesome orchestra. Who knew?

And there were also some vocal soloists. They included a tallish mezzo in a bright blue dress and a short soprano in a burgundy dress. The soprano had a funny-sounding German last name with an umlaut in it. I felt like I had heard both of them before somewhere.

But I kid. The soloists were Dorothea Röschmann, Anne Sofie von Otter, Steve Davislim (tenor) and Eric Owens (bass-baritone). Owens I did not warm to – he’s got one of these (to me) woolly-sounding low voices that I do not enjoy in terms of sound. I was reserving judgement on Davislim early on because his first bit was a duet with Röschmann and, well, I kept getting distracted by Röschmann – but his solo aria in section IV, “Benedictus qui venit,” with a solo flute and cello too, was really nice. I like tenors. I always forget that I like tenors, and then I hear a good one and it’s like – hey! Bonus!

I had never heard Röschmann and von Otter singing together before, and I was curious as to what they would sound like. Their first duet (the “Christe eleison” during the Kyrie and Gloria) left me surprised – I am not sure what I expected those two voices to sound like together, but my expectations were overturned. Not in an unpleasant way at all, though in this duet I was hearing more of Röschmann than von Otter. When the ladies were side by side once more for “et in unum dominum” during the Credo I found myself more absorbed in it than with the first one.

The “laudamus te” is listed in the program as for mezzo, but Röschmann sang it (von Otter performed the other solo arias for female voice). The text of this aria is very simple, and I found myself ignoring the words, the music is so good. Moreover, Röschmann puts such expression into every syllable and every note that this combined with the abstract beauty of the music meant that (given that I was not paying attention to the text) the aria did not have the feeling of being ‘about’ anything in the way that, say, Lieder are about something – and yet it was about something all the same.

Von Otter created a sound of really breathtaking beauty in the “agnus dei” toward the end. Those long, beautifully drawn out phrases – and here she used vibrato sparingly, as an ornament – this was freaking awesome. I loved it.

And I will be back in the concert hall again on Friday! (On Friday sitting closer to the stage, too, which will sound different. Last night I was in the front row of the first tier, smack in the middle – it sounds fine there but I ended up with a mild headache because I kept squinting trying to see better.)

4 thoughts on “Bach – B Minor Mass / New York Philharmonic 3-13-13

  1. I sat in the front for last night’s performance right next to the four singers. The tenor in particular really seemed to be enjoying the performance as he was constantly bobbing his head along to the music and smiling. I also watched the mezzo-soprano mouth some words along with the choir. It’s great seeing this love for the music from these veterans.

    I’ve never heard the mass in its entirety before, but the philharmonic has really turned me on to it. There wasn’t a moment that I wasn’t captivated by the music. I’m probably going to spend the rest of my week listening to various recordings on an endless loop.


    1. I really enjoy sitting up front during operas/recitals/concerts – so many performers have such expressive and interesting faces when they sing (and when listening too!). I was far enough back in the concert hall last night that when the four soloists were sitting to the side all I could see was three relatively still people and then Dorothea Röschmann perched on the edge of her chair and looking rather intense.

      I had never heard the entire mass before either, and I had the same reaction as you did. I really want to hear it over again a few times more.


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