The immediate sell-out event in this year's Aldeburgh Festival was the B minor Mass with these rather special forces, and so an air of expectation was in the jam-packed Maltings on the last Friday night before even a note had been sounded. And as the Monteverdi Choir walked on behind the orchestra to assume the full width of the stage, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner took his place—without a score—you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Then the Kyrie started, beautifully moulded, balance between voices and instruments absolutely perfect for the resonant Snape acoustic, the pulse steady and the architecture of Bach's massive opening chorus securely in place: one knew within 10 bars that this was going to be a fantastically well-executed B minor.
So it proved. The solo parts were taken by chosen members of the choir, as is now usual for singers of this level of accomplishment, individual voice timbres were well matched to the differing tinctus of, say, the Christe eleison and the Laudamus te (I particularly liked the mellifluous and expressive bass soloist who sang the Quoniam), and the structure of the whole work emerged with unusual clarity. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists under their experienced leader Kati Debretzeni was well-nigh faultless: not a cracked horn, not a trumpet fluff, just full throated, highly rhythmical playing in all departments and a wonderful sense of inner balance, with the players listening to each other, in the inner parts. The Snape concert was part of a current European tour by these forces, and the assiduous preparation for the whole venture clearly paid off.
So far so (very) good. What we had was a fantastic evening of vocal and instrumental musicianship, everything very carefully thought out, the contrasts between slow, grand musical declamation and fast, virtuoso passagework heightened and, occasionally, pushed to interesting limits (there were passages in the Credo in particular that only just held together - but, thrillingly, they always did so). What we did not have—and I felt this to a surprising extent—was a sense of spiritual exhilaration that the B Minor can induce. I have no doubt that standards of orchestral playing and of choral singing have come on immeasurably in recent years, and this B Minor was proof of that, but there is an element of passionate devotion to be found in the work that to my ears and heart was lacking. Sir John Eliot Gardiner seemed to have an absolutely clear idea of what he wanted, pointed up dynamic contrasts all over the place, controlled the dynamic of the choir with a flick of the wrist or with a raising of the shoulders, but the invisible line around which all the movements cohere seemed somehow to elude him. I remember the rough-hewn, granite-like sound of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in this work in the 1960s and I remember the spiritual elation I felt emerging from the Festival Hall at the time. Whereas at Snape I felt huge admiration for a supremely accomplished account of all the work's ingredients, without ever becoming lost in the work's spiritual architecture.
So, I would conclude, this is a secular account of a religious masterpiece, the ingredients all deconstructed, rehearsed to the highest and most sophisticated standards of musical ability, and put back together in a way that makes one marvel at the immensity of the B Minor's conception without, in my case, becoming spiritually involved with it. As a choral and orchestral concert, it was outstanding. As a B Minor Mass, it just lacked one magical ingredient.
Photo: Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner