Handel Choir does justice to Bach's profound Mass

April 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If Western music had ended with Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor in 1749, we would still be culturally rich.

Hearing this ever-astonishing score, which was given an earnest performance Sunday by the Handel Choir of Baltimore at Goucher College, it's easy to agree with Charles Gounod's summation of the composer: "He has said all there is to say."

The entire spectrum of the baroque art - counterpoint, fugue, dancing rhythms - is enshrined in this work, which Bach assembled toward the end of his life out of old and new material. The inventiveness of the writing is enough to make the Mass a masterpiece.

But in addition to creating a model of style and form, a synthesis of all that he had learned as a composer, it seems as if Bach wanted to leave a statement of all he had ever felt about faith and prayer. The result is something that fully deserves to be called profound.

To say that B minor Mass is a challenge to perform is putting it mildly. Just in terms of stamina, it requires extraordinary skill; to reveal the soulful aspect of the piece requires unusual sensitivity.

Handel Choir music director T. Herbert Dimmock conducted the two-hour score from memory (no mean feat) and had vocal and orchestral forces meshing smoothly most of the time. Although his tempos sometimes could have used a little more snap, he caught much of the brilliance in the music - the buoyant "Et resurrexit" and "Osanna," for example.

The most poignant passage, "Crucifixus," lacked breadth and depth of feeling, but the eloquent "Agnus Dei" was shaped with considerable sensitivity.

The chorus made up for occasionally weak entrances (especially the opening of the "Credo") and vocal strain (especially among the tenors) with an overall attentiveness to the character of each movement. There was an effective darkness in the sound for the "Kyrie," a good deal of brightness for the "Osanna."

A fortunate choice of soloists yielded dividends. Mezzo-soprano Deidre Palmour's creamy tone and deeply expressive way with a phrase enriched each contribution; she made the "Agnus Dei" quite affecting. Soprano Won Jung Kim encountered some bumps in the florid "Laudamus te" (the not-quite-on-target violin accompaniment could not have helped), but her singing was otherwise solid and colorful. Tenor Chad Freeburg and bass James Shaffran completed the solo quartet vibrantly.

The instrumental ensemble rose to the occasion more often than not; in particular the woodwinds negotiated Bach's lines with finesse and nuance. But the out-of-tune timpani were an annoying constant.

In the end, the performance's ragged edges detracted little from the cumulative emotional and spiritual weight of Bach's supreme art.

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