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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor BWV 232

Barbara Bonney
Angelika Kirchschlager
John Mark Ainsley
Alastair Miles
Tokyo Opera Singers
Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
Rec: August - September 2000, Naganoken Matsumoto Bunka Kaikan, Japan.
PHILIPS 468 363-2 [2CD 102.32] Midprice

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Seiji Ozawa’s recording of Bach’s B Minor Mass is a bit of an anomaly in today’s classical music landscape. Long dominated by "modern" versions of Bach’s sacred vocal works, the trend, in recent decades, has swayed toward "authentic" versions, on period instruments, some with very small forces, such as those recordings by Rifkin and Parrott, using one voice per part. But this recording is part of a tradition of large-scale versions of such great sacred works, and follows in the footsteps of the great recordings of Richter and others.

It is interesting to compare this new recording to another one at the opposite end of the spectrum. The last version of the B Minor Mass I listened to was that of Andrew Parrott, using one voice per part and very small forces. I have a personal preference for an approach that leans in this direction (though, perhaps, not as extreme as Parrott), but I also appreciate recordings that put the work on a pedestal and focus on its grandeur.

And grandeur is indeed the underlying feeling one gets from this new Ozawa recording. With a large chorus and orchestra, and modern instruments, giving the work a big sound, this is the kind of recording that will vibrate the very bones of the listener. And what grandeur! Ozawa leads this with broad, emphatic strokes, putting emphasis on the beat in the larger movements, and infusing the work with drive and energy. While his tempi are "classical" - neither especially slow nor particularly fast - the emphasis he gives adds élan to the more rapid movements, and gives depth to the slower movements.

The sound of this recording is extraordinary: rich and transparent. The choir has almost perfect texture and the soloists ring out clear and pristine. Listen to the Christe eleison, a duet for two sopranos, and the clarity of their voices. However, the overall tone leans toward the bass range. While I generally listen to CDs without changing the bass and treble settings, I found it more agreeable to lower the bass one notch.

The sound of the obbligato violin in the Laudamus te is a bit disappointing - the tone is slightly off at times, and the instrument just doesn’t sound very nice. But Angelika Kirchschlager’s singing of this work is admirable. A bit too much vibrato, as is often the case in this type of performance, but she has a powerful voice that is very moving.

Yet this movement betrays one of the weaknesses of this recording. While Ozawa’s choice of recording this in a "big" way is certainly justified, there is little contrast in tone between the large choral movements and the more intimate arias, such as the Laudamus te. This would be more effective with a bit less force, a bit more sensitivity, letting the singer be subtler and allowing more emotion to come through. As it is, she has to use all her force to balance her voice with the orchestra.

But Ozawa excels in the big movements. The crescendos of the Gratias agimus tibi are huge and organic, full of brute energy and vigour. Yet the closing movement of the Mass, the Dona nobis pacem, lacks the oomph of some of the other big movements. The horns are a bit too present, and there is a distinct lack of crescendo here.

The soloists give fine performances overall. John Mark Ainsley is in very good form, especially in the Benedictus (with flute obbligato, not violin obbligato as marked in the booklet). And Angelika Kirchschlager in the Agnus Dei, makes this one of the most moving parts of this work. Her voice complements this emotional aria to perfection, and, here, the balance with the orchestra is exemplary. This is the high point of the entire work.

With energy and drive at times, and with emotion at others, this recording is a strong addition to the discography of this great work. While there are some problems - the acoustic balance, a lack of total conviction in the final movement - there is much pleasure to be found. For those who don’t like historically informed performances of Bach’s great vocal works, this is a commanding choice.

Kirk McElhearn

 


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