J.S.Bach – Mass in B Minor – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 17 March 2012 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks


Alice PrivettSoprano
Kathryn WalkerSoprano
Leo TomitaAlto
Tim LawrenceTenor
Alistair OllerenshawBass
Hazel Brooksleader


Bach – Mass in B minor

Programme notes

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Johannes Sebastian Bach

The Mass in B Minor is the only full mass or missa tota, which Bach wrote and it was also his last major composition. Working as a Lutheran composer in eighteenth century Germany, it was the short mass consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria, which was used for church services. The B minor mass was pulled together from movements written earlier in his life: the Kyrie and Gloria in 1733 for the Elector of Saxony, the Sanctus in 1724 and the Qui tollis based on a cantata chorus of 1714. To these he added newly composed sections. There is speculation that Bach wrote this full mass, not for liturgical use, but as a statement of Christian beliefs for all people and for all time.

Musically, it represents the pinnacle of High Baroque style, a style which had already given way to the simpler galant style of Bach’s own sons and composers such as Stamitz, Quantz, Couperin and Telemann. This clean, clear homophonic style with easy melodies and gentle decoration laid the foundations for the mature Classical style of Haydn and Mozart by the end of the century. In this sense, Bach was already behind the times and his music all but disappeared until the nineteenth century rediscovery of this hardworking and unassuming genius.

“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” Try telling that to the orchestral musicians who accompany our performance this evening. They have committed years to mastering their instruments and hours to maintaining their period versions in good playing order. Bach’s musicians must have been no less skilful as the orchestra plays a vital role in securing Bach’s vision and technical brilliance. The different colours of each movement, and of sections within movements, are created by absolutely unique combinations of wind, brass and string timbres. This is quite literally his canvas upon which the words of the mass are layered.

The opening movement, Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) sets up all that is to follow. A short, chromatic declamation in B minor is followed by an instrumental prelude of dark and subdued nature from strings and oboe d’amore, an alto-voiced oboe. The Kyrie proper then comes in the form of a 5-part fugue but one with such a long subject melody and at a gentle walking pace so that all you notice is the luxurious interlacing of parts and none of the theoretical genius behind its composition. This is like mining a seam of unspeakably gorgeous Belgian chocolates, the flavours constantly changing, some a little surprising. When it suddenly ends, you are already looking for the next layer.

Christe eleison (Christ have mercy) is in D major and sung elegiacally by two soprano soloists over a typically busy string and continuo accompaniment. The traditional repeat of Kyrie eleison is another fugue, this time in 4-parts, that is four voice parts. This one is a sinuous and slippery character full of shifting semitones and is another third higher in F sharp minor.

The Gloria is split by Bach into nine sections each with its own character arising from careful selection of voices, keys and instrumentation. It begins with a dancing, triple time piece with glittering flutes and trumpets adding to the joy. The changes of gear on occasion are unsettling but the words are usually in charge, for Bach is the master of imagery through music. For example, the dainty flute and violin accompaniment for Domine Deus is a crystalline sorbet compared with the fiddly and nervous soufflé for the solo soprano in Laudamus Te or the pensive alto solo with accompanying oboe d’amore for Qui sedes (who sitteth at the right hand).

The bass aria, Quoniam tu solus sanctus (Thou art the only holy one) seems to argue this theory; with hunting horn and two bassoons, it is almost comically absurd. But surely this is Bach at the height of his powers enjoying a hand-stopped natural horn and the human bass voice performing near-impossible leaps and wriggles to express the one, almighty, most high. This is exhibition stuff from an old master.

The next major section is the Nicene Creed (I believe in one God, Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth). This is also split into nine sections beginning with a fugue for choir based on the original Gregorian chant for Credo in unum Deum. There is great energy in these movements and a sureness of touch. For example, the duet of the third movement, which is written like a round just one beat apart, still sounds completely natural and assured despite the compositional dexterity.

The word-painting of the next three movements speaks for itself in the descending phrases for ‘was made flesh’, the heart-rending Crucifixus and the elation of ‘on the third day, rose again’. The bass aria which follows is this time genteelly pastoral with oboes and continuo for a dignified setting of ‘the holy spirit, Lord and giver of life’. The Creed ends with the longest movement, Confiteor unum baptisma (We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church). This section looks forward to the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection after death and life ever after. The full forces of choir and orchestra are brought to bear in this joyous affirmation of faith.

Much of the mass so far has been for 5-part chorus, the extra soprano line giving light and brilliance to the textures. From the Sanctus to the end, Bach builds the choral forces more and more strongly. Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, is for 6-part choir, the extra alto line enriching the middle register and providing glue in the oscillating triplet lines. It also means that a 6-part fugal section is much busier to describe Pleni sunt coeli (the heavens are full of his glory), trumpet-blowing cherubim flitting all over the place.

The final group of movements, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, opens with the only unison and unaccompanied cry of the whole work. In D major, the most nearly-related key to the pervading B minor, this is unequivocal joy and does little to prepare us for the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, have mercy upon us). In G minor (two flats instead of two sharps), this is musically the most distant key of the entire work. The yearning phrases of the alto soloist are almost painful, set against the hesitant but constant bass line. Nearly every long note in the entire movement is a dissonance waiting to be soothed.

Unusually, Bach takes the final words of the Agnus Dei (grant us peace) and treats them as a final movement, a straightforward, last short fugue in an affirmative D major on a rising theme. Ite, missa est, the priest would say by way of dismissal. Bach seems to be telling us to do likewise, our souls refreshed.

Sara Kemsley

Alice Privett

Alice, sang soprano for the Cantate Choir during it’s performance of J S Bach’s B minor mass in March 2012.

Alice Privett, Soprano

Alice Rose Privett graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2011 with the Concert Recital Diploma; her operatic roles include Poppea L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Longborough Festival Opera Young Artists), Belinda Dido and Anaeus (Ad Parnassum, Venice), and First Bridesmaid/cover of Susanna Nozze di Figaro (BYO). During her undergraduate course at the GSMD she has had the benefit of working with Elijah Moshinsky, Sarah Walker, Eugene Asti and Iain Burnside (in the premiere of his play Unknown Doors in the Barbican Pit Theatre). She has also participated in masterclasses with Rudolph Piernay in Salzburg, Edith Wiens at GSMD and Joan Dornemann at the IVAI programme (Tel Aviv). Alice is a keen recitalist, and after taking part in a recital of Messiaen’s complete songs at The Forge in London was awarded the Tracey Chadwell Memorial Prize for work in contemporary song. In competition she has won the first prize in the Susan Longfield Award (2011) and in the Royal Overseas League (2011) with the ensemble ‘Cries of London’. Upcoming roles this year include Papagena/ cover of Pamina (Longborough Festival Opera) and Pamina (The Complete Singer). She currently studies with Lillian Watson and Jonathan Papp at the RAM.

Tim Lawrence

Tim, sang Tenor for the Cantate Choir during it’s performance of J S Bach’s B minor mass in March 2012.

Tim Lawrence, Tenor

As a former Lichfield Cathedral chorister, Tim Lawrence was introduced to classical singing at a very early age which has helped him to develop into a fine singing musician. After being awarded a music scholarship at King Edward’s School, Edgbaston, he achieved his LLCM Diploma in singing performance under the guidance of Coral Gould and was subsequently awarded an Open Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he currently studies with Dr. Neil Mackie CBE, and coaches with Iain Ledingham.

Tim is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most promising young tenors of his generation, with an increasingly busy concert schedule in the oratorio and recital circuit. Recent solo performances have included Bach’s Magnificat, B Minor Mass, St. Matthew and St. John Passions and Christmas Oratorio, Mozart’s Requiem, Haydn’s Creation, Handel’s Messiah, Jephtha, Samson and Saul, and Stanford’s Requiem. Highlights have included Haydn’s Nelson Mass with David Hill and The Bach Choir as well as Kenneth Leighton’s Columba Mea, under Paul Spicer, both performances at St. John’s Smith Square in London.

In 2011, Tim was accepted onto the Genesis Sixteen scheme, a training programme run by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers which aims to nurture the next generation of talented young voices.

Tim is generously supported by the Josephine Baker Trust, the John Taylor Memorial Trust Fund and the Adah Rogalsky Scholarship fund.

Kathryn Walker

Kathryn, sang soprano for the Cantate Choir during it’s performance of J S Bach’s B minor mass in March 2012.

Kathryn Walker

Kathryn Walker, a music graduate from the University of Birmingham, is studying voice with Elizabeth Ritchie at the Royal Academy of Music. Opera roles include Tormentilla (The Poisoned Kiss/Vaughan Williams), Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus/Strauss) for University of Birmingham Summer Festival Opera, Juno (Semele/Handel) for Hampstead Garden Opera. She is currently working of the role of the Third Lady (Die Zauberflöte/Mozart) with Royal Academy Opera and cover Bircenna (Cajo Fabricio/Hasse) with Ensemble Serse. Kathryn was described as “…a powerful talent to watch. Wonderfully even throughout, her singing has particularly rich lower tones, and she has a highly impressive stage-persona” (Christopher Morley, Opera Magazine) for her performance as Tormentilla. Kathryn is also a member of Song Circle at the Royal Academy of Music, and she is grateful for the support if the Josephine Baker and the Lucille Graham trusts.

Leo Tomita

Leo, sang Alto for the Cantate Choir during it’s performance of J S Bach’s B minor mass in March 2012.

Leo Tomita, Alto

Leo is a countertenor with performing experience including baroque oratorio, 19th century German lied and contemporary opera. He read Chemical Engineering with an Organ Scholarship at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and then held the position of Lay Clerk at St John’s College, Cambridge. Leo is currently studying with Michael Chance, Elizabeth Ritchie and Iain Ledingham on the MA course, where he is a soloist for the Kohn Foundation Bach Cantata Series and is a member of Song Circle. He is grateful to be supported by the Countess of Munster Trust, the St John’s College Choir Association and the Josephine Baker Trust.

Leo has formed a duo with pianist Cecily Lock, with whom he won the 2011 Sir Arthur Bliss prize with a programme of songs by Bliss, Britten and Anthony Powers. Leo and Cecily are keen on performing contemporary song cycles and recently performed Anthony Powers’ High Windows in Oxford and in the Major Van Someren-Godfery Prize 2011 (Commended). In other competitions, Leo was runner-up in the 2010 Blyth-Buesst operatic prize, a semi-finalist in the London Bach Society’s Singers Prize 2010 and a semi-finalist in the singer’s section of the Royal Overseas League Arts music competition 2012.

Leo has performed in venues including St John’s Smith Square, St Martin-in-the-Fields and Ely Cathedral, with instrument ensembles including the Britten Sinfonia, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Brandenburg Sinfonia. His performed concert works include Handel’s Messiah and Dixit Dominus, J.S. Bach’s Johannes-Passion, Himmelfahrts-Oratorium BWV 11 and Magnificat BWV 243 and various Cantatas, Vivaldi’s Magnificat, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, Mozart’s Requiem, Purcell’s Come ye sons of art, Pergolesi’s Magnificat and Stabat Mater, Greene’s Ode to St Cecelia, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

In operatic roles, Leo has sung the role of Boss in Kim Ashton’s chamber opera The boy, the forest and the desert and excerpts in the title role of Handel’s Flavio, Bertarido in Handel’s Rodelinda, Ottone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s Flight.