JS BACH Mass in B minor (Layton)
When Jonathan Freeman-Attwood reviewed the rather good B minor Mass from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (11/14), he spoke of it plugging an ‘obvious gap’ in Hyperion’s Bach catalogue. He was probably not to know that within four years the label would be issuing another B minor, not only sharing one of the same soloists (and, for the record, one choral singer and two players), but also the same production team. Yet Stephen Layton and Trinity College Choir had already given them an attractive Christmas Oratorio (11/13), and presumably that was considered good enough on its own terms for the students to have their own go at this most chorally meaty of Bach’s works.
It is certainly different enough from Cohen’s grandly drawn reading not to tread on its toes. Recorded in their own handsome chapel, it has brightness, clarity and the kind of clean air about it that you are entitled to expect from a young mixed-voice choir. The overall ensemble is bigger than Cohen’s, but the choir’s sound is less firmly weighted and if in places less vocally assured, perhaps more natural. Which is not to say that Layton leaves the music to do all the work. The steady opening ‘Kyrie’ is carefully shaped, both in its local phrasing – the articulation here as elsewhere precise and to-the-point yet never obtrusively over-clipped – and in the well-judged, sometimes almost dreamy rise and fall of its longer-term contours. In the ‘Gloria’ a strong change is made at ‘Et in terra pax’, as there is instead of the usual accelerando slide at the junction between the ‘Confiteor’ and the ‘Et exspecto’. The Sanctus is imposing yet willowy, and in the grippingly built ‘Gratias’ and ‘Dona nobis pacem’ the trumpets emerge from the texture like petals from a bud.
A good sign for the future is that three of the soloists are former members of the choir. Katherine Watson, already a busy soloist, has a delightful baroque soprano voice – focused and accurate but always intelligent, sweet and lyrical – compared to which Gwilym Bowen, though undoubtedly a promising singer, is less secure and in the Benedictus even somewhat pale. Helen Charlston has less opportunity to show herself off as Watson’s mezzo partner in the ‘Christe’ but acquits herself with composure. Neal Davies is reliable as ever (indeed slightly smoother than for Cohen), but it is Iestyn Davies who serves up this recording’s jewel in his first recorded Agnus Dei, a masterclass in technique, vocal beauty and moving musicality that it is hard to imagine surpassed.
The only persistent niggle is that not everything feels in quite the same acoustic. The ‘Kyries’, for instance, seem more distant than some of the other choruses, while the solos are sometimes joltingly closer, and one wonders if this is to do with the particular conditions of recording in Trinity College. But overall this is a fresh and attractive B minor Mass, with plenty in it to enjoy.