Bach’s Mass in B minor towers above all other choral works, and it can survive splendidly intact even with blemishes in performance; so it was with this one by Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie. The principal blemish came in the form of a natural-horn soloist not totally in control of her instrument, and there were moments in the soprano soloist’s arias when her voice didn’t properly project.
But there was enough beauty, mystery, and majesty in this performance to keep five thousand people blissfully enthralled. This work was the crowning statement both of Bach’s achievement as a composer and of his Christian faith, and the journey through its craggy emotional landscape is a constant switchback between darkness and light; Christie and his ensemble negotiated its peaks and chasms with seasoned assurance.
The beat was brisk, and the melodic lines of the massive fugues were wonderfully smooth, with voices and instruments so deftly interwoven that often you could hardly tell them apart; rubato and verbal emphasis were minimized, thus keeping the focus on the big effects, the extraordinary contours. All praise to the flautists, oboists, and string players who stepped forward one by one to accompany the arias and duets, and above all to countertenor Tim Mead, whose closing aria was exquisite.