Bach Mass in B minor
If, in the earlier part of last year, we encountered a number of Bach releases of no great distinction, the latter half made up for it with several splendid tercentenary gestures. Just in time for inclusion within that bracket is John Eliot Gardiner's B minor Mass. The argument for one singer to each vocal part advanced by Joshua Rifkin (Nonesuch) seemed to me to be both extreme and at times unpractical, but it has encouraged performers and audiences alike to think afresh about the forces best suited, above all, to the vocal element of the work. In his excellent HMV Reflexe recording of the B minor Mass, Andrew Parrott, whilst following the Rifkin path up to a point, deviates from it, notably in his use of ripieno singers in addition to soloists. Gardiner, backed up by views expressed in Christoph Wolff's accompanying essay on the work, also opts for differentiation between soloists and a ripieno chorus. Gardiner, I think—though information and an illustration in the booklet is misleading on this point—bases his forces on the famous memorandum which Bach handed to the Leipzig town council in 1730 outlining the vocal and instrumental requirements for performances of his church music; that memorandum influenced, too, the forces which Nikolaus Harnoncourt chose for his pioneering Telefunken performance of the B minor Mass 18 years ago. This results in a larger ripieno group, and a marginally larger string band than Parrott used. 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''. In common with Rifkin and Parrott, Gardiner uses women's voices for the soprano solo and ripieno lines but departs from Parrott, who uses boys, in his preference for a male alto soloist and male alto ripieno singers.
As I implied in my opening remarks, this new recording from John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists is a fine achievement. I have not, in the past, always been convinced by Gardiner's performances of Bach; on several occasions, the results would have been more satisfying if he had let the music unfold with greater natural freedom and not felt the need to tweak rhythms and tempos. Some listeners may like that additional degree of excitement engendered by such methods but my own feeling is that Bach, above all composers, perhaps, does not require 'whipping up' any more than his profound utterances benefit from exaggerated tempos in either direction in order to underline a point. There are no problems of this kind in his B minor Mass which is notably free from intrusive personal mannerisms. Here the many strong points of his direction, amongst which I would single out 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 (sopranos) appear to be exceptions to the rule. I especially enjoyed Nancy Argenta's ''Laudamus te'', in which she is lightly partnered by Elizabeth Wilcock's sensitive violin playing, and the singing of Mary Nichols (mezzo-soprano) who provides an expressive and well-balanced partnership with Patrizia Kwella in the ''Et in unum Dominum''. Michael Chance (alto) gives a beautifully controlled account of the ''Agnus Dei'' and there are assured contributions elsewhere from Wynford Evans (tenor) and Stephen Varcoe (bass).
Just occasionally, I'd like to have heard a steadier, more controlled sound from the soloists in ensemble as, for example, in the poignant chromaticisms of the ''Crucifixus''. There is a hint of unsteadiness, too, in the ''Et in spiritum'', but this stems from the instruments, I think, rather than from Richard Lloyd Morgan's (bass) effectively flowing account; but Gardiner captures the 6/8 rhythm of the piece very well.
If I say that the crowning achievement of Gardiner's recording lies in the vitality, accuracy and homogeneity of the ripieno singing it 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, I imagine, could remain indifferent. Parrott's effective range is more tightly constrained than Gardiner's but, though less arresting on first acquaintance, perhaps, is none the less satisfying in the long run. Gardiner's choruses are immediately striking and handled with such skill and rigorous discipline that repeated hearing in no sense diminishes their impact.
It must, by now, be clear that this new performance, like Parrott's, is a splendid achievement. Which of the two you prefer will be a matter of personal taste, but there is much to be said in becoming acquainted with both. No single performance of a work of this distinction and stature, however perceptive, can embrace all its aspects. I have a slight preference for the EMI recording which is a little more spacious, though the DG engineers have achieved a pleasantly natural sound. The CD is comparably satisfactory to the LPs though hardly more so and, until the EMI appears on the new medium, leads a mixed field. Exemplary pressings and presentation.'