The Netherlands Bach Society gave a stunning performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor on Sunday evening at Town Hall, as part of the Early Music Guild's 30th anniversary season. Jos van Veldhoven, conductor of the group since 1983, led a performance of exquisite clarity and great energy. Using no baton, he sculpted phrases with the smallest gestures, shaping a direct and deeply moving version of the Mass from his chamber-sized forces. The B Minor Mass is one of the great musical masterpieces of all time, and surely the majority of the sold-out house was familiar with it. Still, the crowd was rapt with the fresh and vigorous performance, and responded enthusiastically. The "Cum Sancto Spiritu" chorus at the end of the Gloria was taken at break-neck speed, exciting the audience to cheers before intermission. In the Credo, the "Crucifixus" was particularly heart-wrenching, as the singers' initial attacks suggested the pounding in of the nails, while the gradual fading away at "passus et sepultus est" evoked death and burial. "Et resurrexit," which follows, was in brilliant contrast, with joyous trumpets and drums and a thoroughly exhilarating tempo. Throughout the mass, van Veldhoven took special care with regard to the text. The diction of the Netherlands Bach Society is extraordinary, but it goes beyond that–certain words seem to "pop" out of the texture, like the word "Pax" in "Et in terra pax." It takes a special conductor to bring out Bach's vocal emphases with such consistent and well-considered attention to detail. At the heart of the performance were the five outstanding vocal soloists, who sang both solo and choral portions of the mass. When Joshua Rifkin first proposed over 25 years ago that the mass was intended for soloists rather than a large chorus, he was derided by most scholars and performers. But now, the concept of five soloists carrying the piece is widely accepted, at least in early music circles, and was certainly effective in the Bach Society's performance. The soloists were supported in portions of the choral movements by a small group of "ripieno" singers, bringing the total vocal forces to 15. This is in line with Bach's oft-quoted memo to the Leipzig city council in which he stated that he preferred using three singers to a part. Since the B Minor Mass was never performed during Bach's lifetime, there is no standard performance to copy, only Bach's autograph manuscript as a guide. The international soloists included an American, a Canadian, two English men, and a Dutch woman. The American, Catherine Webster, was actually a last-minute substitute for the ailing soprano Dorothee Mields, and Webster performed admirably, with a clear and warm timbre. Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer sang a magnificent "Laudamus te" in virtuosic Italian style. Tenor Charles Daniels sang a soulfully expressive "Benedictus," with Marten Root providing lovely accompaniment on Baroque flute. Bass Peter Harvey was most impressive in the "Quoniam" aria, although natural horn player Teunis van der Zwart almost stole the show with his flawless performance on that treacherous instrument. Canadian countertenor Matthew White has a beautiful sound that he used to great effect in the plaintive "Agnus dei." The instrumental forces consisted of a small string section (5 violins, viola, cello, and bass), a small continuo group (harpsichord and organ), and a rather large wind section that provided a great opportunity to hear outstanding practitioners of natural trumpet, natural horn, Baroque flutes, oboes, and bassoons in their various solo roles. he story of Bach's B Minor Mass is complex. The Kyrie and Gloria were written in 1733 and presented as a gift to the new Elector of Saxony at the Catholic court of Dresden. The Sanctus dates from 1724, and the Osanna is based on a cantata written in 1732. But the Credo dates from Bach's last years, 1748-49, and it is thought that the "Et incarnatus est" section, written in a shaky hand by the dying composer, may be the very last music Bach ever wrote. What was Bach's intent with this work? About two hours in length, it was surely not intended for regular liturgical use. And besides, why was Bach, a devout Lutheran, compiling a complete Catholic Mass at the end of his life? It seems probable that like "The Art of the Fugue," the B Minor Mass is a compilation of all the different styles of vocal composition that Bach had mastered during his life, from "stile antico" choral fugues to the most modern "galant" operatic duets. It's as if Bach wanted to preserve in one piece the best examples of the many different styles of vocal music he could write. The result is a true masterpiece which still inspires awe from a 21st-century audience – particularly when given a performance with such power and artistry as the Netherlands Bach Ensemble's.