The Gramophone Choice
Dorothee Mields, Hana Blažíková sops Damien Guillon counterten Thomas Hobbs ten Peter Kooij bass Collegium Vocale, Ghent / Philippe Herreweghe
PHI LPH004 (101’ • DDD) Buy from Amazon
This is Philippe Herreweghe’s third commercial recording of the Mass in B minor in 23 years and, unlike many conductors who serially return to cornerstone pieces, his finest to date. Collegium Vocale Gent established its Bachian credentials for glowing homogeneous restraint and soft-hued refinement in the 1988 reading (for Virgin), only to pursue a form of routine luxuriance in their Harmonia Mundi version eight years later.
If the original Virgin recording has its share of vocal and instrumental wrinkles, much of its durable delicacy and poise returns in the new account, especially in capturing the ‘daily bread’ of the ritual narrative of the Mass with luminosity of line; now, the stakes are considerably higher and there is a maturity in the vision which is immediately evident in the opening ‘Kyrie’. It’s a performance of beautifully calibrated dynamics, inner elegance and promising future mysteries.
Surveying the complete discography of the Mass reveals how few performances transport the listener into each contained world – be it a Gloria or ‘Crucifixus’ – while managing the long-term challenge of an evolving, not driven momentum. Bach may have assembled the Mass as a single entity in his final years but this is a work which the composer left without a performance ‘in toto’, and perhaps not even one ‘in mind’. A lot is left to judicous imagination.
Herreweghe is a master of when to fill the sails and when to trim them, especially in the large ensemble movements but also across the piece. The ‘Et in terra pax’ may appear a little laid-back compared to the driven intensity (in very different ways) of Andrew Parrott and Karl Richter but as the huge Gloria unfolds, the kaleidoscope of formal and textural possibility always allows for special devotional intimacies to emerge. The ‘Domine Deus’ is, apart from an intermittently flat Dorothee Mields, an exquisite example of how the interweaving worlds of instruments and voices create a ‘oneness’ of Father and Son.
Atmosphere is ultimately what places Herreweghe’s new reading in the higher echelons. The solo set pieces may not all reach the same high level of the wonderfully rich ‘Quonium’ (the bassoons sounding like grumpy old men), a radiant ‘Et in Spiritum’ from the perennial Peter Kooij and Thomas Hobbs’s touching Benedictus but most compel the listener to discern, at the very least, the multi-layered musical, liturgical and expressive depth of Bach’s supreme masterpiece. The opening ‘Credo’ is portrayed as a mathematical proof, a timeless constellation of glistening canti firmi, while the ‘Et incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’ see Herreweghe in his element, juxtaposing the purple of the Roman rite with the adopted figural mysteries of his indigenous forbears. The ‘Confiteor’ is irresistible.
This account is one of the most consistent in recent years, though without quite the engaging exultance (the volley of D major choruses from the ‘Et exspecto’ are only impressively efficient), risk and poetic ambition of Frans Brüggen’s first recording (for Philips). Brüggen sprinkles magic especially in his handling of the registral connections between movements and some brilliant inspirational turns. While the balance favours the instruments for him, they can seem subdued for Herreweghe or non-existent: no list of players in the booklet is something of travesty in the circumstances of this great ensemble piece.
Carol Hall, Lynne Dawson, Nancy Argenta, Patrizia Kwella sops Mary Nichols mez Michael Chance alto Howard Milner, Wynford Evans tens Stephen Varcoe bar Richard Lloyd Morgan bass English Baroque Soloists; Monteverdi Choir / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv 415 514-2AH2 (106' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Gardiner bases his forces on the famous memorandum Bach handed to the Leipzig town council in 1730 outlining the vocal and instrumental requirements for performances of his church music. This results in a larger ripieno group. Gardiner also includes a harpsichord as well as an organ, the simultaneous playing of which, in Wolff's words, was ‘a practice that can probably be assumed to be normative in the great majority of Bach’s church music’. Gardiner uses women’s voices for the soprano solo and ripieno lines and also a male alto soloist and male alto ripieno singers.
This is a fine achievement. Here the many strong points of his direction – a vital rhythmic understanding, a clear and positive sense of purpose, and a naturally affective response to Bach's music, combine in forming a concept of the work which not only explores its eneffable mysteries but also savours the magnificence of its architecture. The solo vocal line-up is a strong one and there are few weak moments; most of the soloists sing in the ripieno group as well, though Patrizia Kwella and Lynne Dawson appear to be exceptions to the rule. Nancy Argenta’s ‘Laudamus te’, in which she is lightly partnered by Elizabeth Wilcock’s sensitive violin-playing, is very fine and the singing of Mary Nichols who provides an expressive and well-balanced partnership with Patrizia Kwella in the ‘Et in unum Dominum’ deserves special mention. Michael Chance gives a beautifully controlled account of the ‘Agnus Dei’ and there are assured contributions elsewhere from Wynford Evans and Stephen Varcoe.
That the crowning achievement of Gardiner’s recording lies in the vitality, accuracy and homogeneity of the ripieno singing is in no sense intended to underplay the considerable virtues of the soloists and the orchestra; but this, after all, is first a vocal work and foremost a choral one. The ripieno singing at its very best – as it is for example, in the ‘Et resurrexit’ – is thrilling and gives a fervent imprint to the entire work. There is a spontaneity about this singing to which few listeners could remain indifferent. Gardiner’s choruses are immediately striking and handled with such skill and rigorous discipline that repeated hearing in no sense diminishes their impact.
Susan Hamilton, Cecilia Osmond sops Margot Oitzinger alt Thomas Hobbs ten Matthew Brook bass Dunedin Consort and Players / John Butt
Linn CKD354 (102’ · DDD/DSD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
In the booklet John Butt – Bach research specialist and author of the Cambridge Handbook on the Mass in B minor – explains his thoughts about historically informed performance practice (one voice per part, following the evidence outlined in the writings of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott), and discusses his choice to make the first recording of Rifkin’s recent edition. Butt’s interpretation owes firm allegiance to the ‘OVPP’ creed that will not please everyone (even if detractors have not yet produced a single scrap of proof to refute it), but the Dunedin Consort and Players are never perfunctory or merely dogmatic. This performance demands to be heard.
Butt has considered every musical connection, context, texture and form. Not only do the individual movements feel spot-on in articulation and Affekt but the free-flowing pacing from one section to the next makes it easy for the listener to be pulled along. Each section of the Roman Ordinary is envisaged as continuous music, so there are no pregnant pauses between solo and choral movements. The first chords of the Kyrie are sung boldly by the 10 singers (five ‘principals’ and another five ‘ripienists’), and the solemn fugue is performed with gentle ardency; every gesture, detail, suspension and arching line is judged and executed with transparency, flexibility and rhetorical potency.
Thomas Hobbs and Matthew Brook sing the principal lower-voice contrapuntal passages with sensitive blend and superb intonation: they also declaim their solo movements with confidence and eloquence. The higher-voiced principals are marginally less successful: the combination of Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmond in the duet ‘Christe eleison’ occasionally threatens fragility but perhaps more authoritative and smoother-toned soprano soloists would have been less adaptable in the choruses. The galant character adopted by Butt’s elegant harpsichord continuo, Patrick Beaugiraud’s poignant oboe and tasteful strings during ‘Qui sedes’ proceeds without pause into ‘Quoniam’; Anneke Scott’s sparky horn playing and Matthew Brook’s conversational authority conspire to take no prisoners, and the momentum carries through into a knock-out ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’.
Once upon a time the bravery of minimal forces tackling this repertoire was ridiculed by sniffy sceptics. Butt and the Dunedins might not change any entrenched minds; but the climax of ‘Gratias agimus tibi’ is as bold, resonant and glorious as anything one would expect (and not always get) from larger forces. The opening of the ‘Gloria’ bursts forth with radiant splendour but also has a dance-like lilt, and with Bach’s intricate writing emerges as a compelling dialogue.
The Dunedin Consort’s singing conveys the ebb, flow and shading of Bach’s choruses with ease and naturalness. The sonorities of full homophonic chords concluding the grandest choruses are thrilling, whereas the densely polyphonic choral passages always possess clarity and logic thanks to the disciplined interplay of the singers.
Many excellent recordings of this monumental work cater for different tastes and priorities, and although an excellent one-voice-per-part version is nothing new, Butt’s insightful direction and scholarship, integrated with the Dunedin’s extremely accomplished instrumental playing and consort singing, amount to an enthralling and revelatory collective interpretation of the Mass in B minor.