Recently, I reviewed a recording by Peter Seymour and the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists of Bach’s St. John Passion. This recording of the B Minor Mass was made not long afterwards and in the same venue. I was decidedly uncomfortable with the speeds that Seymour adopted for most of the chorales in that St John performance. There are some challenging speeds in this present performance too but, for the most part, I am less disconcerted this time around.
For the St. John Seymour used a small choir of just twenty singers (5/5/4/6). For the Mass he utilises a much larger choir of fifty-seven (18/18/10/11). Purists might well argue that this means it’s not a ‘period’ performance, despite the presence of period instruments. They may well be right but I find Seymour’s decisions as to the scale of the performance and the forces employed pretty convincing.
The very opening of the work may startle you. Seymour is brisk and business-like in the way he dispatches the first four bars – too much so for my taste – but the Bärenreiter vocal score may imply a justification for this since there is no tempo marking over those first bars but bar 5 is marked Largo, suggesting, perhaps, a slower speed. Thereafter the first chorus, Kyrie I, settles down to a perfectly conventional speed. I’m afraid, however, that I simply can’t agree with the speed adopted for Kyrie II. Granted, it’s merely marked Alla breve but I calculate Seymour’s speed to be about 96 beats to the minute and he whips through the music in just 2:21. By contrast, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, no sluggard, brings the movement in at a much more realistic 3:30 in his 1985 DG Archiv recording. Thereafter, however, I’m pretty comfortable with the speeds throughout the performance.
The Gloria is joyful and buoyant. Some may think that ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ is on the swift side but I like the freshness and clarity. Of course, the same music recurs at the very end of the work at ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and, rightly, Seymour adopts the same tempo. For some reason I feel the tempo is marginally less successful at that point in the score but I’d far rather have a speed that’s fleet than any suggestion of grandiosity. Reverting to the Gloria, the ‘Qui tollis’ also benefits from the clarity of approach. Perhaps a slightly slower speed would have allowed the flute line to twine more sinuously around the vocal parts but the performance is convincing. The lithe, jubilant ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ is delightful; the fugue is excellent, the singing – and playing – crisp and each line clearly audible. In the Credo I like the way Seymour takes the ‘Et incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’ choruses: the pacing is sensible and his singers have just the right amount of tonal weight without any hint of the sanctimonious. At the end of the Credo the ‘Et expecto’ is exciting and festive, complete with silvery trumpets. The Sanctus is quite fleet and some may feel that some grandeur has been sacrificed. On the other hand, the pacing emphasises the joyful nature of the words and music and I like it. In all this Seymour is supported excellently by his choir. The chorus is flexible and I like very much the fresh, clean tone they produce with just the right amount of body in the bass line. At all times the singing is clear and the choral contribution is an asset in this performance.
What of the soloists? There’s a good, well matched duet from Bethany Seymour and Sally Bruce-Payne in the ‘Christe eleison’ and, singing by herself, Bethany Seymour makes a very pleasing impression in the highly decorated ‘Laudamus te’. I’m unsure how the tenor solos are divided but whichever tenor sings in the ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’ duet has too big a voice for the music in my view and overdoes the vibrato. He doesn’t blend well with Miss Seymour. The soloist in the Benedictus sounds much more suited to the music. He makes a good job of this demanding solo and I like the plangency in his tone. There’s also a super flute obbligato in this movement.
I’ve already mentioned Sally Bruce-Payne. She gives a very fine account of ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’, singing her line with clean tone and excellent articulation. And in the even more crucial Agnus Dei solo her singing is excellent. The stand-out soloist, however, is Peter Harvey. He’s commanding in ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ and in the ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’ he spins a splendid line, deploying a splendid legato.
The recorded sound is good and the clearly produced booklet includes a scholarly yet readable essay by Peter Seymour. This performance of the B minor Mass is not, I think, a first choice in what is a highly competitive field but it’s fresh and enjoyable and I’m glad to have heard it.
The Times, July 2011
There are some stellar recordings of Bach’s great Mass around, but this spirited performance from Peter Seymour’s York-based forces shouldn’t sink with trace.
Plus points: warm-toned, well-sustained choral singing; meticulously articulated instrumental work (Yorkshire Baroque Soloists); and Peter Harvey’s world- class bass solos. Minus points: a mundane Kyrie; a hilariously jolly Crucifixus (perhaps someone’s been watching Life of Brian) and some penny-plain solo singing elsewhere. A fine testament, however, to Seymour’s splendid Baroque performances over almost 40 years.
Choir and Organ, October 2011
With 57 voices and 27 players, this is neither bloated nor budget Bach, but a very happy medium indeed. The blending and attack are exemplary. There is no mannered diction, affected cadential pausings, forced piety (or, indeed, that fashionable contemporary anti-piety); but, here and there, several very bracing tempi which never quite feel dangerous, but almost! The continuo is by turns crisp, jaunty, reflective and supportive, but never attention-grabbing. And there is a continuity of tone between chorus and soloists which is utterly beguiling. The baffling simplicity of Bach’s faith yet the dazzling bravura of his art have here some very fine advocacy.
BBC Music Magazine
Performance and Recording ****
Recordings of the B minor Mass range from the 180 voices of the Vienna Singverein under Herbert von Karajan (1952), to one-to-a-part Joshua Rifkin and others from 1982 to the present. Reverting to a real ‘chorus’ invokes a warm sense of nostalgia; there are 57 voices here, though to their credit they are so supple and crisp that they often sound considerably fewer, comfortably balanced by only 13 strings and wind. The Gloria is delightfully sprung, as are the Sanctus and its contrasting ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ and ‘Osanna’, all three of which Seymour binds cleverly together with a common tempo; the sense of uninhibited joy and praise is exhilarating. Only in the extreme choral complexities of ‘Cum sancto’ does the choir seem to falter a touch.
Peter Harvey is in fine voice in Quoniam with Roger Montgomery’s bold horn tone. Other soloists are more recently on the scene. Bethany Seymour’s glorious soprano is subtle but unaffected, especially in some striking ornaments – she soars to a top A at the end of the ‘Laudamus’. Sally Bruce-Payne is remarkably countertenorish, entrancing in a slow, tender Agnus Dei. Seymour capitalises on a plethora of tenor graduates from York University, with different voices for their two solos.
While I remain captivated by John Butt’s inventively contrasting vocal forces (Linn), for a choral B Minor Mass, this excellent performance ranks among the best.
Gramophone, November 2011
Peter Seymour’s recent St John Passion got to the heart of the drama with an unequivocal reading, and this is a B minor Mass of similarly rapt engagement. Adopting the most common force-size and type among prevalent orthodoxies – notably a chamber choir and ‘period’ band – the Yorkshire Bach Choir and Baroque Soloists again respond alertly and open-heartedly in the full ensemble, which is where the greatest rewards are reaped.
Directness affords the soaring choruses of the Gloria a rare luminosity, and to those of the Credo added ingredients of space and elegance, among the bustle of contrapuntal sparring. Much of the momentum is also achieved by judicious decisions on spaces between movements. If some of the speeds surprise in their questing fervour (the ‘Christe eleison’ takes alla breve to the limits), compensation arrives by way of Seymour’s encouragement to follow the meaning of each line with unstudied conviction, most beautifully realised in the irradiating mysteries of the ‘Et incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’. With the majority of the virtuoso choruses, the tempi are unhurried, Seymour choosing a pragmatic path between musical ambition and technical possibility. Only a slightly push-me-pull-you ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ highlights any notable limitations.
Akin to the St John, the solo work is considerably less compelling than the large- scale ensemble movements. Peter Harvey’s customarily fine singing of the ‘Quoniam’ and ‘Et in spiritum’ are state-of-the-art and an affecting ‘Agnus Dei’ from Sally Bruce-Payne is not far behind. Elsewhere there is too much vocal instability to rival the plethora of versions where the tutti work is similarly fine. On one particular point, I wondered whether Bach’s poised and immaculate coloratura in the ‘Laudamus te’ really requires further embellishment. This is a small gripe but contributes to the view that corporate spirit and character are, on balance, not quite enough to carry the day.