If you love the peaks of the choral repertory, this has been a great season so far. Already, Oratorio Chorale has performed Handel’s “Messiah” and Fauré’s Requiem, and on Sunday afternoon, ChoralArt offered a grandly scaled, powerful account of Bach’s Mass in B minor at Woodfords Congregational Church. Still pending on ChoralArt’s schedule are performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony with the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Rachmaninoff’s exquisite “All Night Vigil” on its own.

The Bach holds a justifiably special place for many listeners. It was, so far as musicologists can tell, a work composed not for a performance – none is known to have taken place during Bach’s lifetime – but simply as a Summa, a work in which Bach demonstrates his best ideas about a particular form, in this case the Mass, often drawing on (and reconfiguring) music he had written for earlier works, most notably the Missa of 1733 – the Kyrie and part of the Gloria of the Mass in B minor, composed as a job application for a position at the court of Dresden.

But if there is no documented performance of the work as a whole, scholars know, thanks to surviving payment records and other paperwork at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, that if Bach had wanted to perform it, he would have had to make do with a tiny choir, with only a single singer to a part – a discovery, published by the musicologist Joshua Rifkin in 1981, that had implications for all of Bach’s choral works.

Rifkin’s recording of the Mass in B minor, using a minimal choir and period instruments, proved revelatory for the transparency of its textures. In concert, though, Rifkin’s approach sounded anemic, at least to those of us used to hearing Bach sung by a large choir. It also raised a few questions, including an admittedly speculative one suggested by the work’s Summa status: If the score represents Bach’s ideal vision of the Mass, rather than the road map for an actual performance, how do we know that Bach did not imagine a larger choir? He did, after all, periodically petition for money to hire more singers, so clearly the size of the Leipzig choir was a matter of circumstance rather than preference.

In any case, Robert Russell, ChoralArt’s music director, stands by the pre-Rifkin approach, as many conductors still do, although he made a small compromise by using the 50-voice ChoralArt Singers rather than the full, 100-voice ChoralArt Masterworks. And the accompanying orchestra – between one and three players to a part – was sufficiently minimal to satisfy listeners with a more literalist historical view.

Mostly, he made the case for large-choir Bach in the most logical way – by giving a performance so robust, passionate and energized that even purists among the large audience had to ask themselves whether they’d really prefer it any other way. The big, slow choral chords that open the Kyrie, and the contrapuntal workout that follows, were thrilling enough to foreclose any historical quibbles, and the choir’s focus and beauty of tone remained consistent through the work, with the Sanctus and the closing Dona Nobis Pacem among the other highlights.


The sections Bach set for vocal soloists were also handled with assurance and style by Elisabeth Marshall, Sophie Michaux, Teresa Herold, Gene Stenger and Aaron Engebreth. Herold, in particular, proved magical in the alto solos, especially the Agnus Dei, where her rounded, copper tone called to mind the classic recording of the movement by Albert Deller, the pioneering countertenor.

The instrumental ensemble gave a fine performance as well, giving gracefully turned accounts of the many obbligato lines – the violin, flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and trumpets all have moments in the spotlight – as well as a solid but admirably fluid accompaniment to the choir and soloists.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:


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