To conduct Bach’s Mass in B minor, the conductor John Eliot Gardiner wrote, “is to be filled with a tremendous sense of anticipation.”
You have a feeling, he continued in his book “Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven,” “that you are going to be exposed to a heightened sense of consciousness — of the role of music, of its capacity to affect and change people’s lives, of its power to reflect and even to mitigate the way people respond to contemporary events.”
A lofty claim, though one befitting a reigning interpreter of this repertoire: Gardiner, 80, a scholarly flag-bearer of the historically informed performance movement for a half-century, has virtually set the standard in Bach’s sacred music.
That mastery, often rendered with a perfectionist’s precision and a pilgrim’s devotional fervor, has made his ensembles’ visits to New York major events year after year. But when the Monteverdi Choir and the period group the English Baroque Soloists returned to Carnegie Hall for a two-night engagement this week, for the Bach Mass and Handel’s oratorio-like ode “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato,” Gardiner was nowhere in sight. (Also missing, it seems, were some of his usual fans; Stern Auditorium was visibly less full than it has been for his groups’ appearances.)
In his place was the much younger — by nearly five decades — Dinis Sousa, a capable presence who nevertheless had more the air of a custodian than a conductor in charge. He led fine performances that never quite achieved the kind of transcendence these musicians have routinely offered in the past.
Gardiner is responsible for his own absence. In August, after a concert performance of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in France, he was accused of striking a singer in the face, reportedly for exiting the wrong way off the podium. Gardiner withdrew from the rest of his 2023 commitments, and said in an apologetic statement that he was “taking a step back in order to get the specialist help I recognize that I have needed for some time.”
Sousa picked up the rest of the “Troyens” concerts, and is now conducting the tour that stopped at Carnegie this week. Gardiner is expected to be back onstage next year, but his absence now is a reminder that he won’t be around forever. And if his musical empire lives on, it will have to learn to do so without him.
It was difficult to tell at Carnegie what that future would sound like if it were to be under Sousa. The singers and instrumentalists, seasoned collaborators groomed by Gardiner, have excellence etched into their bones. But a little less so in these concerts: Sousa kept time and shaped phrasing, but only respectably, with unwieldy balance and timidity that verged on the genteel. It felt, at times, easier to be impressed by the music than by the performance of it.
Part of the challenge is that these musicians have set an incredibly high bar for themselves — a bar that the soloists, drawn from the choir and orchestra, still met. The soprano Hilary Cronin sang with a rich body and luminous purity, and at one point wove Italianate elegance with the mezzo-soprano Sarah Denbee in the Bach’s “Christie eleison.” In the Handel, Cronin brought a similar radiance to “There held in holy passion” and a soft glow to “But oh, sad Virgin.”
In its dialogue between violin and vocalist, that aria is a cousin of “Sweet bird” in “L’Allegro,” a showcase for singer and flute. There, and throughout Thursday’s performance, the soprano Samantha Clarke was a font of grace, luxuriating in the music’s beauty with restful patience.
The countertenor Reginald Mobley sang in the Mass with direct yet plush articulation, culminating in a weighty and enchanting Agnus Dei aria. A similar full sound emerged in the too few solos for the bass-baritone Alex Ashworth, who was buttery in the Bach and commanding in his 11th-hour entrance as Moderato in the Handel.
Although the strings occasionally overshadowed the delicate winds — and the singers, too — individuals demonstrated the nuance that the English Baroque Soloists are capable of: Anneke Scott, who masterfully tamed her temperamental period horn; Michael Niesemann, whose oboe felt like a lyrical extension of the human voice; Rachel Beckett, who achieved much the same on her flute, while also evoking the natural world in “Sweet bird.” On both nights, the violinist Kati Debretzeni was nimble, solemn one minute and rustic the next.
It must be difficult to lead these players in Gardiner’s shadow, but only if Sousa takes absolute command of the orchestra and choir — as their maestro does, to excess — will he be able to draw out their superlative skill. To reach the kind of playing that leads us, as Gardiner wrote of the Mass in B minor, to “realize that Bach’s final prayer for peace, ‘Dona nobis pacem,’ is both an invocation and a resounding confirmation of its immanence.”