Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Review: Netherlands Bach Society

Bach: Mass in B minor
April 24, University of Richmond

Performing Bach’s Mass in B minor five times in six days, with a 3,000-mile journey between the fourth and fifth performances, is a pretty convincing scenario for highbrow hell week. That’s what Jos van Veldhoven and his Netherlands Bach Society put themselves through, starting an American tour on April 18 in New York, continuing on to Ann Arbor, Berkeley and Seattle before their April 24 finale in Richmond.

The ensemble’s 15 singers and 22 instrumentalists sounded unfazed by the mileage. If anything, they sounded more keenly attuned for having undergone such concentration on a single work. Especially this work: The Mass in B minor is immense, very complex in its part-writing, very demanding technically; new balances and textures, different emotional modulations and expressive flourishes, await discovery or exploitation in every performance.

Much has been made of the "intimate" approach the Netherlands Bach Socuety takes to Bach’s major choral works. Its vocal forces – 10 "ripienists" and five "concertists," or soloists who also join in the choruses – are far less numerous than those typically employed, even by historically informed troupes. The society’s string contingent – three first violins, two seconds and single viola, cello and double-bass – is also decidedly compact.

The group did not sound downsized in the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall, a 600-seat venue whose acoustical clarity and level of resonance are ideal for pre-modern instruments and the straight tone of early music singers. The ensemble played the room expertly, projecting across an unusually wide dynamic range, filling the space in the most exuberant choruses but making some of its strongest musical points with a few voices at low volume.

Veldhoven does not belong to the lickety-split school of early music conductors. In the Kyrie and other graver sections of the Mass, his tempos were quite measured – more Klemperer than Gardiner – and his treatments of fast sections, while brisk, were never breathless, always aware of their dance origins and inflections.

The most audible departure this group makes from standard-issue Bach is the extra emphasis it gives to the affectus, or tonal-emotional vocabulary, of this music. The sighing figure that underlies the Kyrie is rarely as potent as it was in this performance; likewise, the vivid effects of crucifixion, death and resurrection in the Credo. Veldhoven also played up strong contrasts, as between the Osanna and Benedictus.

The solo voices, paced by countertenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels and soprano Johannette Zomer, were well-matched and struck a nice balance between baroque stylishness and emotional authenticity.

Add to that pinpoint accuracy in choral singing and fine instrumental solos, especially by the concertmaster, Johannes Leertouwer, and flutist Marten Root, and the sum was a performance of extraordinary fluency, vitality and depth.