Open season for performing Bach at the BBC Proms starts well before the Glorious Twelfth. Dodo-like performances on an outsize scale long thought extinct, choirs of nightingales singing one to a part – anything is fair game now. Back in 2000, period specialist Roger Norrington gave a massive performance of the B Minor Mass that worked remarkably well and since then we have also had authentic, small-scale Bach and everything in between.
The skilfully judged performance of the Mass at this year’s BBC Proms aimed for the centre ground. There was a period-instrument orchestra – The English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket, accompanied by its companion Choir of the English Concert – but the forces used, comprising around 40 singers and 50 in the orchestra, were pitched with an eye to a venue the size of the Royal Albert Hall.
As the opening “Kyrie eleison” unfolded, it seemed it was not only the size of the performance that would be middle-of-the-road. The gentility of the choral singing, familiar from the world of Oxbridge colleges, felt redolent of cucumber sandwiches on Grantchester meadows. Everything was perfectly groomed, but anodyne. Where was the grand emotion of Norrington or the intense focus of John Eliot Gardiner?
That suspicion never entirely went away, but Bicket has distinctive ideas about tempo and phrasing and also knows how to rise to the big moments. The swift pace of the “Qui sedes”, the joyous lift of the “Gloria”, the conversational give-and-take of the “Domine Deus” and “Et in unum Dominum”, all worked well, and Bicket has the invaluable ability to reach in to the tangled mass of Bach’s counterpoint and pull out the thread that matters.
There were no weaknesses among his colleagues. The line-up of soloists – counter-tenor Iestyn Davies freely lyrical in the “Agnus Dei”, Joélle Harvey floating notes of gleaming purity as first soprano, alongside Carolyn Sampson, Ed Lyon and Matthew Rose – was good all round and the English Concert and its Choir operate on the highest level. The trio of trumpeters were wonderfully agile, and yet celebratory, in Bach’s festive D Major movements, such as the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” and “Et resurrexit”. Wherever this performance was lacking in strong feeling, there was always high quality as compensation.