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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor BWV 232 (1724-1740) [109.36] 2 CDs
Lucia Popp (soprano)
Carolyn Watkinson (alto)
Eberhard Büchner (tenor)
Siegfried Lorenz (baritone)
Theo Adam (bass)
Rundfunkchor Leipzig
Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum Leipzig/Peter Schreier
St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1727 or 1729) [180.59] 3 CDs
Margaret Marshall (soprano)
Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor)
Hermann Prey (baritone)
Christoph Dobmeier (bass)
Thomas Hamberger (bass)
Anton Scharinger (bass)
Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern
Tölzer Knabenchor
Bach-Collegium München/Enoch zu Guttenberg
St John Passion BWV 245 (1724) [112.34] 2 CDs
Inga Nielsen (soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (alto)
Claes H Ahnsjö (tenor)
Robert Swenson (tenor)
Anton Scharinger (bass)
Thomas Quasthoff (bass)
Chorgemeinschaft Neubeuern
Bach-Collegium München/Enoch zu Guttenberg
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 (1734) [165.03] 3 CDs
Arleen Auger (soprano)
Annalies Burmeister (alto)
Peter Schreier (tenor)
Theo Adam (bass)
Dresdner Kreuzchor
Bachorchester der Dresdner Philharmonie/Martin Flämig
Mass in B minor recorded in the Paul-Gerhardt Church, Leipzig, in November 1981 and February 1982
St Matthew Passion recorded in Kloster Church, Alpirsbach, on 20-22 April 1990
St John Passion recorded in Wallfahrts Church, Tading, on 2-7 April 1991
Christmas Oratorio recorded in Lukas Church, Dresden, January 1974 - February 1975
BMG-RCA COMPLETE COLLECTION RED SEAL 82876-55701-2 [10 CDs: 53.33 + 56.01 + 76.58 + 54.26 + 49.35 + 55.53 + 56.41 + 62.26 + 50.46 + 51.51]


This fine set of the four major choral works by Bach has a cast featuring the late-lamented sopranos Arleen Auger and Lucia Popp, who both died tragically and all too soon within five months of each other in 1993. It is part of the Complete Collections boxed sets put out by BMG-RCA Red Seal, which include all the symphonies by Beethoven, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner and Brahms. There is a caveat; don’t be fooled by the allure of a 40-page booklet, for assuming you do not wish to read the French and German versions, what you get comes out at 24 pages of historical background but with no biographical details of the performers, nor translations of the Latin or German texts. The composer Mauricio Kagel has given a wonderfully pithy description of Bach’s status in the scheme of humankind, ‘certainly not all people believe in God, but all musicians believe in Bach’. Never a truer word, but this reviewer would add ‘thank God for God for without God there would be very little music by Bach’, and what is left would pale into insignificance alongside these miracles which were written for the greater glory of the Creator. It is hard to grasp that Bach’s music faded into obscurity for almost eighty years after his death in 1750, and that when Burney writes of Bach in 1772 he means Carl Philipp Emmanuel rather than his far more illustrious father Johann Sebastian. Yet Bach was by no means unknown, but appealed in a far more cerebral and analytical way to artists from Mozart to Goethe (who would have the Well-tempered Clavier played to him while he lay down, eyes closed). When Mendelssohn performed the St Matthew Passion on 11 March 1829, he unleashed a renaissance of unparalleled proportions and did Mankind as great a service as God had in creating Bach in the first place. Never mind that his realisation of the score was far from authentic, he gave Bach’s music the sense of timelessness that persists to this day. He wrote all four of the works under discussion at St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig where he was Cantor from 1723 until his death. The B minor Mass was never performed in his lifetime, nor was it intended for liturgical purposes, and its composition took over sixteen years, often plundering his own previous works. It remains at the pinnacle of Baroque vocal music. But then where does that place his St Matthew Passion? Comparison is invidious and one can understand Nietzsche, usually a hardened sceptic, when he wrote that he heard it ‘with the feeling of immeasurable awe’. The conditions under which Bach wrote it and the St John Passion defy credibility for the texts had to be submitted to the theological censor before being passed for performance. Finally the Christmas Oratorio, a compilation of six cantatas rather than a continuous oratorio written for two year’s worth of Christmas celebrations between Christmas Day and the Epiphany. These then are the miracles of creation which are now so familiar to us.

Schreier, tenor turned conductor, takes sprightly tempi from the outset of the Kyrie in the Mass, the choral textures nicely translucent as each contrapuntal thread weaves its way through the movement. Wind solos are carefully balanced against a finely judged number of string players, despite some lumpy singing from the Leipzig Radio Chorus’s bass section. The sopranos are bright while the phrasing has a good feel for forward shape and architecture. Bulges in dynamics at the tied notes in the strings unfortunately overstress the introduction to the sublime duet which follows (Christe eleison), more than compensated for by an excellent blend of voices between Popp and Watkinson, which recurs in Et in unum Dominum in the Creed. This and other exaggerated mannerisms tend to become a feature of the Schreier view of Bach’s style, for rather than leave the music to speak for itself he tends to add points of articulation which are plainly not in the musical text, such as the start of the Gratias and its overcooked and unnecessary Grrr. The chorus sopranos occasionally lose focus of pitch above the stave in this incredibly demanding music, but a fine element of the performance is the Gloria with impressive high-wire playing by the Collegium Musicum’s trumpeters, indeed the instrumental playing is of the highest order throughout, including a wonderful softness of string sound achieved in the Domine Deus, crowned by sublime flute playing. Popp shows what a fine singer she was in this movement alone, ably supported by the musical phrasing of tenor Eberhard Büchner. Adam’s magisterial Quoniam is superbly accompanied by a brilliant solo piccolo trumpet and a duo of growling bassoons octaves below, underlining Bach’s colourful and imaginative orchestrations.

Enoch zu Guttenberg’s interpretations of both Passions are strongly dramatic, with plenty of emphasis on forward orchestral sound and vivid choral colour. While Hamberger’s dramatically involved and engaging Evangelist is brightly toned by crisp diction and intense energy, it is impossible to identify which of the three basses is singing at any one moment, a victim of booklet-content economy (the singer of Jesus is foggy-toned in comparison and too frequently just under the note). The choral sound produces a cohesive blend and balance, but again, as with Schreier in the B minor Mass, the conductor has infused the phrasing in the chorales with overdone mannerisms, so their strengths lie in the drama of which they are observers as in Greek tragedy. Marshall’s dark-toned voice bridges both soprano and mezzo tessituras, but the lower register tends to spread on occasion, nevertheless her flowing account of Buss und Reu pleases. Orchestral solo contributions are satisfying, the close sound showing the twenty-year advance in recording technology, though the generous resonance of the Klosterkirche in Alpirsbach contrasts with the clearer acoustic of the Wallfahrtskirche in Tading, from which the massive opening chorus of the St John benefits greatly. The harpsichord loses the battle of the balance between it and its continuo cello which dominates too much and should be much more of a partnership. Guttenberg occasionally takes liberties such as ignoring all pauses in the chorale Dein Will’ gescheh’ in a seeming effort to do something different with each and every one of the genre - an unnecessary and surely inauthentic approach. The soloists are generally worthy contributors to the proceedings here despite some poorer work from the minor contributors including a shrill and mercifully anonymous Maid. The problem of anonymity persists in the St John; one assumes that Ahnsjö is the Evangelist in both Passions so it is Swensen who struggles manfully with Ach, mein Sinn, a cruelly persistent trial of double-dotting which taxes the best of tenors, a case of Bach writing instrumentally for voices.

The earliest recording of the four works is the Christmas Oratorio and it shows in the muffled orchestral sound until the brightness of trumpets and sopranos penetrate the clouded acoustic. Flämig’s interpretation tends to be somewhat pedestrian in tempo but, apart from the hard-edged tone of alto Burmeister, his soloists are of the best - Watkinson or Stutzmann as substitutes would have made all the difference. Schreier’s singing makes one wonder why he took up conducting, perhaps he had laboured under too many Kapellmeisters, though it must be said that he was not only the son of a Cantor but studied both singing and conducting. Orchestral playing is superb in all departments, the trumpets dazzling.

So in terms of success it is a mixed bag, but this ten-CD box provides an insight into the German way of doing things-Bach since the era of Karl Richter. Each performance has its zenith, but the common denominator is the fine standard of orchestral playing which makes it worth the buying.

Christopher Fifield


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