The exact reasons that prompted Bach to assemble a large-scale Latin mass in the last years of his life are unclear, but part of his thinking seems to have been to create an encyclopaedic musical survey of vocal church music, just as he had done for the keyboard (Clavier-Ubung and Well Tempered Clavier) and concert instruments (the Brandenburg Concertos).
Sydney Philharmonia's Easter performance of his B Minor Mass under conductor Brett Weymark honoured its role today as both a sacred and secular monument of unsurpassed stature, using a Symphony Chorus for imposing moments like the opening numbers of major sections and a smaller group of Chamber Singers to draw out contrast.
Weymark emphasised unified continuity in the superb five-part opening Kyrie fugue. Rather than sculpt the shape of each phrase individually, he generally allowed the change from one musical number to the next to create textural variety.
In the second Kyrie the Chamber Singers articulated its main theme with carefully separated notes to lighten the texture.
The fugue on Gratias agimus tibi, sung by both choirs, started with quiet warmth building like a great cathedral arch to the final entries with trumpets and timpani, the same music returning at more measured pace in the closing Donna Nobis Pacem to create a close of great moment.
Weymark's tempos were often quick, occasionally presenting a challenge for the full choir (as in the breathless In Sancto Sprititu at the close of the Gloria).
Rather than allocate arias and duets to members of the choir, as Bach probably would have done had he performed the piece (though there is no record he did), a strong group of vocal soloists partnered with instrumentalists from the orchestra led by Fiona Ziegler to create those moments of chamber-music intimacy that were key to Bach's universe of musical possibilities.
Soprano Janet Todd and mezzo Sally-Anne Russell sang the Christe at a lively tempo with expressive colour and neat precision, while bass David Greco brought smooth clarity to Quoniam tu Solus Sanctus. Particularly memorable were Sally Walker's ornately expressive flute solo in the Benedictus with mellifluous line from tenor Andrew Goodwin, and Sally-Anne Russell's warm focused sound in the Agnus Dei.