I moved to New York City in the summer of 2000 and my goal was to find a job and prepare for the fall semester of my fourth and final degree in music. I wasn’t expecting and musical revelations that summer as I was led to believe that NYC empties out during the summer. They had forgotten to tell me about one amazing event, however, the Mostly Mozart Festival. In August of that year, I saw two incredible performances that I will never forget: An incredible production of Louis Andriessen’s opera, Writing To Vermeer, conducted by Péter Eötvös, and a life-changing performance of Bach’s choral magnum opus, Mass in B Minor, performed by Philippe Hereweghe and his ensemble and chorus, Collegium Vocale Gent.
Herreweghe’s second recording had recently been released and I was already familiar with every minute of that recording. I was beyond excited to finally see, for the first time, a world-class period-performance ensemble perform one of the pinnacles of our art-form. I wasn’t disappointed.
The lesson I learned from that performance, however, was that this chorus, orchestra, soloists, and conductor were committed artists of the highest order, regardless of the instruments they played, or the scholarship they employed. The chorus, to the best of my recollection, totalled just 24 voices, and yet their intonation, diction, and phrasing were sung with such devotion that they had absolutely no problem creating an overwhelming sound in Avery Fisher Hall. I would subsequently hear much larger choral forces in that hall with far less power. Herreweghe conducted with an almost priest-like solemnity. He projected at all times a reverence and deep connection to every note in the music….and I mean every note. The orchestra played as if they had studied every word being sung and the soloists sung as if they could play every instrument in the orchestra. With the hundreds, perhaps thousands of performances I have witnessed, this remains one of the most memorable and earth-shattering.
Herreweghe has recorded the mass three times in the studio and all of them are worth a listen. One can watch Herreweghe’s mastery of this score in this fantastic performance from 2017 at the Concertgebouw. Notice the incredible sound of the chorus.
Here is Herreweghe’s third recording from 2015 —
Herreweghe’s second recording from 2000 —
And his first recording from 1988.