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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor
Sunhae Im; Ann Hallenberg; Marianne Kielland; Markus Schäfer; Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Dresden Chamber Choir
Cologne Chamber Choir Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
Recorded by Deutschlandfunk, Sendesaal Köln, Nov. 2003
NAXOS 6.110102-03 [53:34 + 54:46]

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Oscar Wilde referred to a cynic as "someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing". Were that cynic a disciple of J.S. Bach even he would have to concede that the value of this new release by Naxos far exceeds its modest price.

This great choral masterpiece is another of Bach's compositions with a strong religious focus. Notes accompanying these discs refer to the Mass in B Minor as "A setting of the complete Roman Catholic Mass by a Lutheran Protestant - a magnificent synthesis of Italian melodic invention, French rhythmic dance forms and German contrapuntal mastery"- amen.

It is highly probable that aficionados will possess several different versions of the many currently available. Opinions regarding superiority are as varied as the options available. Performances by John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 415 514 2) Philippe Herreweghe [HMC 901614.15] and Andrew Parrott [Virgin Veritas 7243 5613372-3] are among perennial favourites and with sound justification.

Given the monumental magnificence of this work, any competent and capable performance is a joy to behold and certainly in this instance Helmut Müller-Brühl's recording more than qualifies in both criteria.

Müller-Brühl employs modern instruments in preference to those of the period, and while one may debate the relative merits, less debatable is the rather orthodox and conservative orchestral sound.

Immediately evident is the very low level at which the recording was made. This necessitates that the volume control is advanced far beyond the point normally required to produce a robust listening level. Under such conditions amplifiers are more prone to distortion during louder passages.

In another area of orthodoxy this version fares well. Müller-Brühl uses female voices, in those solo areas to which they have been traditionally assigned, rather than counter-tenors or male sopranos.

If there is any one crowning glory to this composition, the magnificent solos for voice must rank very high on the list. In these Sunhae Im, Marianne Kielland and Ann Hallenberg perform splendidly. The duet from the Credo [3] is equal to the best available and better than most. The excellent tenor Hanno Müller-Brachmann also appears in the high profile recording of the Mass by Philippe Herreweghe

It is not uncommon for the choice of personal favourites from among the many versions available to be strongly influenced by these solos. This writer has long held in high esteem the Eugen Jochum version (1982) and of several contributing factors, a key one is the uniquely beautiful rendition of "Laudamus te" by Brigitte Fassbaender. In none of the aforementioned versions, including the review performance, does the rendition of this solo compare; it is so rushed in the Gardiner version [3:53] that the soloist sounds out of breath and the phrasing muddled. The baroque violin does not fare any better. Herreweghe slows the tempo [4:26] and the voice soloist responds positively.

Of the modern soloists the best rendition of "Laudamus te" is not from a performance of the Mass. Magdalena Kozena [Archive 457 367-2] gives a spellbinding performance along with ten other of the best J.S. Bach arias - a truly remarkable recording.

In a public forum who would be bold enough to recommend a version of this work to someone wishing to make an initial informed purchase? Having said that the following very broad and general comments may offer practical guidance when making a selection from the plethora of varied alternatives

For a traditional performance, albeit in some ways now considered dated, the Eugen Jochum version [1982] offers few disappointments and many delights.

In the category of modern interpretations using traditional instruments the second recording by Philippe Herreweghe [HMC 901614.15] is of consummate excellence. The recording quality is outstanding with a clarity and conciseness that embellishes excellent performance by both voice and orchestra.

This new recording by Müller-Brühl embodies elements of both of the above plus unique elements of its own. For those making an initial purchase it may be selected with absolute confidence. Aside from minor imperfections this is an intellectual recording, which reflects a deep understanding of the music. The solo singing is a joy. While the retail price is unrelated to the true value it is an added bonus. It is also available in SACD format for those with this facility.

If you are a dedicated "masser" this recording exhibits those interpretive and performance characteristics which, since initial exposure, have continued to strengthen your love affair with the music.

As a stand-alone recording of Bach's Mass in B Minor, this new interpretation possesses a number of laudable and highly enjoyable attributes. Comparatively however its overall appeal does not attain the same heights as versions by Philippe Herreweghe et al.

Zane Turner

see also review by Peter Lawson

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