Back Bay Chorale affirms B-minor Mass’s grandeur

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — J. S. Bach’s Mass in B-Minor is something of a musical palimpsest. Toward the end of his life, the most Lutheran of composers finished a Roman Catholic Mass setting, which, too long and elaborate for practical use, then languished, an unperformed cult curiosity, for the better part of a century. Even now, its masterpiece status assured, the question is what exactly to make of the Mass. Is it an abstract experiment? A private drama made public? A noble monument?

On Saturday, the Back Bay Chorale and director Scott Allen Jarrett firmly chose the last.

The sound was plush but sober, and tempi were on the deliberate side, eschewing historically informed haste; this was faith as a solid haven, not a perilous adventure. The Mass’s extremes of length and magnification — the opening “Kyrie eleison’’ expends 10 minutes on two words — are a formidable climb for any choir; the Chorale did an admirable job scaling the heights, focus and endurance never flagging.

Intonation and blend remained solid, even with the upper voices adopting an early-music, vibrato-less tone.

The leaner sound came at some sacrifice of impact: Passages requiring punch only really worked in the reinforcing presence of trumpets and timpani. But soft sections, like the “Qui tollis’’ in the Gloria or the “Et incarnatus est’’ in the Credo, were lovely, luminous, and ethereal. The orchestra, a well-cast portion of the city’s deep freelance community, offered warm sound and polished detail.

Soloists combined overall quality with varied approaches. Soprano Sonja Tengblad’s voice was light but intriguing, with easy flexibility and upper-range sweetness. Both baritone Sumner Thompson and tenor Aaron Sheehan came into their own as the concert progressed, Thompson giving “Et in spiritu sancto’’ a cultivated, suave clarion, Sheehan navigating the serpentine twists of the “Benedictus’’ with tenderly expressive agility. Mezzo-soprano Krista River sang with regal confidence; her “Agnus Dei’’ was especially fine, deftly shaded with melancholic restraint. But it was soprano Kendra Colton who provided the most texture, her rich, ringing sound not just managing Bach’s intricacies, but finding the almost foolish joyousness in their complex twists and turns.

But on the whole, it was a performance of composed grandeur, assured and elegantly proper. Bach’s theological discourse endures in part because it can take a range of interpretation; Jarrett and the performers burnished it into sumptuous ritual. Just the cathedral’s architecture can inspire plenty of awe on its own.

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BACK BAY CHORALE Scott Allen Jarrett, music director

At: Sanders Theatre, Saturday