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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor (1724/1749)
Sunhae Im (soprano)
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo)
Ann Hallenberg (mezzo)
Markus Schäefer (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Dresden Chamber Choir
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
rec. Sendesaal, Köln, November 2003
NAXOS 8.557448-49 [53.34 + 54.46]

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I’m not sure what the point of this is. Helmut Müller-Brühl has been around for quite a while - I remember his name gracing the Nonesuch LP catalogue, Stateside - and his Cologne Chamber Orchestra plays mostly modern instruments ... though I imagine we’re hearing high trumpets in D here. But their performance here is anything but “traditional”.

The opening invocations of “Kyrie”, polite and contained, hardly storm the heavens but seem rather unwilling to risk disturbing the Deity. In the main subject of the ensuing fugue, the orchestra’s phrasing is finicky and detached - though the phrase’s continuation as counterpoint, oddly, flows much more naturally. When the chorus takes up the subject, they taper the lower-lying bits nearly to inaudibility. Further mannerisms crop up as the performance continues. The duetting ladies in the Christe, like many period practitioners, attack in straight tone before swelling into vibrato - but they do this on every sustained tone, reducing the movement to note-spinning. The Et in unum Dominum reprises the effect, exacerbating it with Sunhae Im’s pressured flutter. Self-conscious, detached articulations rob the Qui tollis and the Et incarnatus est of solemn gravity. The ear strains to pick out the bashful obbligato horn in the Quoniam. And so on and so forth.

The choral blend is good, both within and between sections, but the consistently soft-edged sound could use some bite. In the fugues, frankly, I’d just like to hear the entries better. And those movements where the chorus bears the tonal responsibilities don’t work at all. Et resurrexit, with its fast runs, lacks presence; the Sanctus is simply murky.

The performance isn’t quite a dead loss: Et in terra pax and Gratias agimus, for example, benefit from going at a no-nonsense alla breve. And there’s one outstanding soloist: Hanno Müller-Brachmann has the bass depth for the Quoniam, and a sufficiently baritonal technique to negotiate the turns above the staff smoothly. In the higher Et in unum sanctam - which really dances, though the duetting oboes want to “stick” - he’s smooth if mildly cautious. He and the acceptable tenor avoid the ladies’ annoying straight-tone mannerisms.

Overall the enterprise is fundamentally misguided - to use a modern orchestra and a mixed chorus to replicate the period style, warts and all, simply squanders the advantages thereof.

In a crowded catalogue, this performance is neither fish nor fowl. If you want this sort of performance, just go directly for a period-instrument version. If you want to hear what modern instruments can do in this score, Jochum’s reverent EMI version (competitively priced, in the Double fforte series) is beautifully sung and tonally lustrous.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also Review by Peter J Lawson


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