By Peter Fletcher

Thirty years in the writing and not performed in its entirety until over a century after the composer’s death, the Mass in B Minor was J. S. Bach’s finest work; some would say the finest piece of western classical music ever written. Some parts, like the Sanctus, Kyrie and Gloria were reworked from earlier compositions: the Sanctus from as early as 1724. Over the last three years of his life, Bach remodelled these and wrote new material to complete the mass. Why a lifelong Lutheran chose for his swansong a Catholic mass is not recorded. The first complete public performance was in Leipzig in 1859.

Saturday's performance in Hereford Cathedral was by the Hereford Choral Society and the Marches Baroque orchestra under their conductor Geraint Bowen. The soloists were Zoë Brookshaw (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Herford (tenor) and William Gaunt (bass/baritone).

From the clear and powerful opening Kyrie, the choir placed their stamp on the performance with all the confidence of painstaking rehearsal. The voices were well balanced but with the individual parts distinct. The fugue demonstrated the precise phrasing that would be in evidence throughout and particularly delineated were the falling appoggiaturas which permeate the entire work. Each voice was given due prominence as each polyphonic point was introduced although some of the lowest bass phrases were rather lost.

There were many excellent ensembles in this evening’s performance, with distinct individual voices perfectly matched and communicating well, not only with each other, but also with the obligato instruments. Each of the soloists also shone in their individual arias, demonstrating fine tone and control throughout their respective ranges.

The choruses showed good balance between orchestra and choir, not least due to the Baroque instrumentation. The natural trumpets and horn are much less brassy than their modern counterparts and blend better with voices. Also, the Baroque pitch tends towards a more relaxed feel to the overall performance. However, due to the cathedral’s acoustic the words, which were marvellously clear in the homophonic sections, tended to get lost in the heavy polyphony.

The capacity audience were enthralled by the atmosphere which was surprisingly intimate for such an epic piece; even the young St. John volunteers, who didn’t quite know what to expect, thoroughly enjoyed it. We knew the choir, orchestra and conductor. We had fine soloists and a superb building. In an uncertain world, we were in safe hands.