Bach raised to uncommon heights; Helmuth Rilling leads a sublime rendition of the Mass in B minor

Helmuth Rilling
The Globe and Mail

By Ken Winters

The musical glory of the Christian world came nearly completely to life at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night. Johann Sebastian Bach’s vast, sublime B-minor setting of the Latin Mass, with its great Greek opening supplication, Kyrie eleison, Christie eleison – “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us” – had a remarkable performance under the senior German conductor Helmuth Rilling.

The University of Toronto MacMillan Singers and Bach Singers, core members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and a quartet of solo singers of which two were above average and two were phenomenal, coalesced under the authoritative guidance of Rilling to inhabit Bach’s music with vigour, finesse and insight.

Rilling, now in his mid-70s, brings to the task a dedicated lifetime of Bach scholarship and a vast experience of Bach performance. He has every note of the mass engraved deeply on his consciousness, and has arrived at his way of doing it through unremitting trial, not much error, and a complete submission of the self to the responsibilities of conveying Bach’s music. One may wish at times he would allow his heart more freedom and his imagination more leeway, but one can never doubt his preparedness or his resolve.

The two youthful choirs, splendidly prepared by their director Doreen Rao, did everything Rilling asked of them, including a couple of things I found manneristic, such as the arch subdivision of the second syllable of “eleison,” making it into a series of detached sounds (“eh-eh-eh”). Elsewhere, however, with Rilling’s encouragement, they rose to exceptional heights of involvement: in the sequence of the hushed Et incarnatus est; in the rich exfoliation of the linked last choruses of the Credo; and in several other key choruses, including the massive, sonorous final Dona nobis pacem….