Our rehearsals have been continuing on Zoom throughout January and February and we have been revelling in tackling Bach’s last great masterpiece, his astonishing B Minor Mass.

It has been some time since BFC has performed the B Minor Mass; however, our history with the work is an illustrious one. Here we recall a resplendent performance with Karl Richter in the 1970 Brighton Festival and a subsequent performance as part of the 1990 Brighton Festival that was broadcast in December of that year on BBC Radio 3, but remembered more by BFC members for a bench that collapsed mid-performance …

BFC’s first performance of the B Minor Mass was with Karl Richter and the English Chamber Orchestra in 1970 as part of the third Brighton Festival. Richter was, at the time, the world’s greatest exponent of the mass and knew the whole work from memory, conducting it without a score. Former Bass 2, Eric Thompson, who sang in this performance recalls how Richter was a man of few words and little conversation. Laszlo Heltay, BFC’s founding Music Director, took him for a cup of tea during the break at the café on the Brighton Pavilion lawns. Trying to engage Richter in conversation, Laszlo asked, ‘Maestro how do you deal with the bass ‘Et Iterum Venturus Est’ (one of the trickiest moments in the work). Richter replied, “I start each rehearsal with it and repeat it 23 times” – end of conversation! Such were the Dome acoustics at the time, the chorus couldn’t hear the orchestra. Richter insisted that speakers be put in place to relay the orchestral sound to the Chorus. His tenacity clearly paid off. Richard Binstead, writing in The Argus on 11 May 1970 describes “The most ravishing sounds and the deepest satisfaction musically so far in this year’s Festival”

A second encounter with the B Minor Mass was a performance in 1972 in Oxford Town Hall under Laszlo Heltay with members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the English Bach Festival Chorus. The performance divided critical opinion. A contemporaneous newspaper article hailed it as, “Some of the best choral singing Oxford has heard in recent times”. Gillian Widdicome, writing in the Financial Times, however, was less enamoured, “The Chorus were too many in number with a harsh tone and no flexibility in line”. By great good fortune on this occasion the entire Chorus were billed as the ‘English Bach Festival Chorus’ (no longer extant), so we escaped the criticism by the wrong appellation!

January 1986 saw BFC back in Brighton Dome with John Carewe and the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Our 1990 Brighton Festival performance, with Laszlo Heltay and the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra, was recorded and later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 30 December 1990. It is emblazoned on the memories of many who sang in the performance not so much for the immaculate performance but for the collapse of a bench containing a section of the altos. Alto 1, Barbara Green, remembers the incident:

We had just reached the end of the beautiful ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ and remained standing for a few bars of the following solo aria – presumably for dramatic effect. At the given bar number we all sank quietly back on to our benches as the soloist began. At that moment, the back legs of our bench slid silently down into the gap between stage blocks and we four altos were left poised in mid-air, eyes front, and not daring to put any weight on the said bench. The basses behind us did their best to hold up and right the bench, whilst we ladies endeavoured to maintain an upright and serene disposition, with tears of silent laughter streaming down our faces. The aria seemed to be endless and our leg muscles really struggled, but hopefully not too many of the audience noticed. Thank goodness that the Dome has now invested in comfortable and (hopefully) incident-proof staging!

Rehearsing such a great work alone makes us all realise how much we miss performing such monumental oratorios, so a performance of the B Minor Mass looms large in our hopes for the future. Listen out for some of the most memorable moments: ‘Et incarnatus’ is frequently hailed to be the high point of the mass; however the casual listener looking for an introduction to this monumental work would enjoy the contrapuntal and triumphal, ‘Et in terra pax’ (the fifth movement) or the lively, ‘Cum Sancto’ (the twelfth movement).

To find out how you can support BFC’s ongoing work and help us to realise our ambition to put on beautiful performances of iconic works like the B Minor Mass and inspire a new generation of choral singers, click here.