As Chartres is to architecture, so Bach's B-minor Mass is to music. Each a towering pinnacle, an ultimate expression of its particular form of art. Each of them the work of a superb architect. So somebody had to do the Mass in this week of Bach's 300th birthday, which is today.
Norman Scribner and his Choral Arts Society did real justice to this masterpiece -- with some truly stunning choral singing -- last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. They will repeat the Mass tonight.
Few works of music have been conceived in this immensity, not even Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. And it is not just a question of length -- last night's Mass was about 2 1/2 hours, counting intermission. Bach takes the Ordinary of the Roman Mass, which comprises five sections (Kyrie -- Gloria -- Credo -- Sanctus -- Agnus Dei) and sets it meticulously, line for line, clause for clause.
Alternating a multitude of choruses with arias and duets, each section could work as a self-contained work, some like a cantata. All of these sections are organized in perfect balance.
The Mass, though, is primarily a choral work, for all the beauty of the solo parts. And it is a gigantic one.
There is the lengthy and stupendous opening chorus of the Kyrie, with its anguished cries, its supplication. Its fugal development is of such immensity that it is hard to see how any listener could keep track of its mathematical logic; one simply listens, overwhelmed.
There is the choral Sanctus, which evokes the seraphim more powerfully than any other piece of music. Albert Schweitzer commented that "there is hardly anything else in music that expresses so perfectly the idea of the sublime."
There is the quiet mystery of the Crucifixus, ending on a grief-filled decrescendo on a chromatic scale that was stunningly executed last night.
Throughout the evening this grand chorus was at its peak -- pitch impeccable, attacks and releases spectacular, diction very fine, the Mass' vast network of contrapuntal lines amazingly clear.
Scribner pushed the work along in the more proclamative moments -- which is to say at almost any time when those jubilant Bach trumpets and drums were sounding. In the more reflective moments he tended to be deliberate, with the result that the Sanctus, for instance, and the opening Kyrie, were strikingly clear.
The outstanding soloist was Glenda Maurice, the mezzo, who also has the greatest solo music -- especially the Agnus Dei, sung with considerable feeling. Soprano Jeanne Ommerle', tenor John La Pierre and bass Stephen Saxon also did their jobs well.
All the soloists in the Bach Festival Orchestra were splendid.
Often as one may hear this Mass it never ceases to evoke awe. And it is all the more awesome because this greatest setting of the Latin Mass came from a sturdy, bourgeois Lutheran Kapellmeister.