The last time Summertown Choral Society put on Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, the weather did its best to kybosh the event – but thankfully failed. I was one of many who plodded through ankle-deep snow that evening to get to St Andrew’s Church in Linton Road, and was rewarded with a magnificent performance.
Conductor Duncan Saunderson remembers it well: “It was terrible weather. I do remember Edward Higginbottom (Former Director of Music at New College, 1976-2014) trudging up from his house to come and hear it, which was somewhat beyond the call of duty!”
Hopefully, the weather will be a little more obliging on Saturday when the 120-strong choir will once again be performing this glorious Bach piece, almost eight years to the day since that snowy performance in 2012.
Unsurprisingly, Duncan and the choir have been relishing the opportunity to revisit the piece.
“Because it’s written so well it really sticks in the memory, so from that point of view it’s good to sing, and there are so many recordings it’s a great joy to explore them. I think a lot of living rooms in Summertown have been resounding with recordings of Bach’s Mass in B Minor – there are well over 200 available. It’s a very accessible piece from that point of view.”
What is the particular appeal of performing this piece?
“I guess the scale of it is fairly unusual, and the fact that we know the work so well, and to hear maybe the greatest composer that ever set those very familiar words to music.
“He completed it in the last years of his life, so it was a summation of his incredible genius. The sheer quality and consistency of the piece is absolutely fantastic.
“There are also lots of different styles. One assumes he was writing in a relatively antique style, which I think he picked up from Palestrina, and it’s remarkably varied. Then you’ve got the orchestra ranging from blazing trumpets and timpani to beautiful, soft woodwind and violin playing. It’s a very varied, lovely colourful piece.”
The choir is lucky to have some top soloists living close by. Sopranos Helen and Kate Ashby, and tenor Tom Kelly, are all members of the award-winning a cappella vocal ensemble Stile Antico. Countertenor Robin Blaze has sung principal roles with Royal Opera, ENO and Glyndebourne, while bass Tom Lowen, an Oxford graduate and currently a lay clerk at Christ Church Cathedral, has sung with eminent vocal ensembles such as I Fagiolini and The Tallis Scholars.
“To have Helen and Kate Ashby, and Tom Kelly, on our doorstep in Summertown is a great joy,” says Duncan.
“Robin Blaze I’ve known for a long time. He’s done a lot of Bach for the Bach Collegium Japan, who are world-class exponents of Bach, so again to have him is a tremendous joy for all of us.”
Also joining the choir is Oxford’s professional baroque orchestra, Instruments of Time and Truth, which was formed in 2014 by bass player Judith Evans and cellist Gabriel Amherst.
“They know it very well,” says Duncan. “They’re incredibly professional and absolutely passionate about the music, and that comes across in their playing.”
Bach’s music can seem an overwhelming prospect for anyone new to classical music, but Duncan is adamant that this is an accessible work that all can enjoy.
“I suppose the obvious thing [for newcomers] would be to sit back and enjoy it, and to realize that they are listening to one of the greatest works ever composed,” he says.
“A lot of people think Bach is a bit academic and dry, and he was thought of as that, for some reason, for a couple of centuries after he died. It’s only relatively recently that people have realized how joyous and tuneful it is, so I’m pretty sure that they’ll be drawn in.”
Bach’s Mass in B Minor is on Saturday 1st February at 7.30pm at St Andrew’s Church, Linton Road, Summertown. Tickets: 01865 305305 or www.ticketsoxford.com