Bach’s mighty Mass in B minor has long been a signature-work for the Birmingham Bach Choir, whose proudest performance of this masterpiece was surely in the Leipzig composer’s own St Thomas’s Church in the late spring of 1989.
Conductor then was Richard Butt, but this latest account, under Butt’s successor Paul Spicer, and dedicated to Butt, was equally memorable, but for different reasons. 1989 was basically emotional; here, at the Lichfield Festival, it was much more for technical expertise in what is so often a difficult acoustic, but one which Spicer knows so well, having previously been the Festival’s longest-serving director.
The secret here was the amazing lightness of touch Spicer drew from his huge chorus, entries deftly etched but never fulsome in their continuation (not even in the imposing “Sanctus”), diction projected with intelligent clarity focussing upon key words, and with tone never insipid but engagingly warm.
Remarkable, too, was the contribution of the London Baroque Sinfonia, a freelance bunch who perform music of this period with extraordinary elan and communication. Who to praise? Flutes, trumpets, horn, chugging bassoons? No; all of them.
There was an excellent quartet of soloists: Sophie Bevan (a late soprano replacement), full-voiced and radiant, counter-tenor Iestyn Davies almost ethereal in delivery, John Mark Ainsley’s tenor contributions as gripping as ever, and bass Peter Harvey sturdily rock-like. But here’s a thought: the soloists actually have very little profile in this Mass. Bach would have extracted them from his own choristers. I know of at least two members of the Birmingham Bach Choir capable of stepping up to the plate.