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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV232 (various dates, 1723-49) [108:20]
Sunhae Im (soprano), Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo-soprano), Ann Hallenburg (alto), Markus Schäfer (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Dresden Chamber Choir;
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
recorded by Deutschlandfunk, Sendesaal Köln, November 2003
NAXOS 8.557448-49 [53:32 + 54:44]



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There are plenty of good budget priced recordings of the Mass in B minor available, but these are often reissues - like Jochum’s inspired performance - of ‘old-school’ readings. Or others - like Joshua Rifkin’s controversial edition - which, for one reason or another, have met with limited critical acclaim. So there’s more than enough room for another, such as this welcome offering from Naxos. In the light of Müller-Brühl’s previous work for Naxos - especially his excellent middle-period Haydn - I’ve been looking forward to this with more than usual levels of anticipation.

This recording uses modest forces, but modern instruments. The approach is intelligent, with a keen awareness of stylistic conventions, some sprightly tempi and lively articulation. Indeed, there is much to enjoy, and a good deal which stands out from the crowd. The Credo chorus, for example, which is unusually brisk and - very unusually, but arrestingly - starts quietly. Everything is delivered with a warm heart, and a palpable sense of conviction - something which (surely?) ultimately transcends my detailed reservations.

Unfortunately, there are some scrappy starts: Laudamus te and Et Resurrexit (both, interestingly, starting half way through beats) should have been re-recorded, and the careless transition from Quoniam into Cum Sancto Spiritu either re-recorded or re-edited. (Bach obviously wants this chorus to follow on immediately, as again with the Qui tollis, but either Müller-Brühl - or his sound engineer? - seems content to have a micro-second’s break before proceeding, with resultant disruption of musical continuity.) On the other hand, the difficult gear-change (in the Gloria chorus) into Et in terra pax is absolutely masterly: so we cannot possibly generalise about weak structural seams or insecure off-beat starts.

Müller-Brühl is partial to some odd staccato articulation - the violins in Christe eleison, the voices in Crucifixus (why oh why?) and the curious stabbing chords of the chamber organ continuo in Agnus Dei.

Although many of the choruses are strong in conception, there are, it seems to me, a number of missed opportunities. The D major statement of the opening Kyrie fugue - a ray of God-given sunlight - passes for nothing. And Bach’s mighty rising harmonic sequences in the Sanctus are left to fend for themselves, so conveying little sense of divine architecture. Happily, the long crescendo of the Gratias and dona nobis choruses are paced well, and are wholly convincing.

I cannot stop myself mentioning Müller-Brühl’s habit of pausing very briefly before almost every final chord, ritardando or not: this may be an inconsequential detail to some, but I find it mannered, and grossly intrusive.


The orchestral sound (compared with Gardiner, Herreweghe or King) is full and warm, but disappointingly orthodox. The modern double horn and Heckel bassoons in the Quoniam are very ordinary compared to the delicate lip legati and raw hand-stopped notes of a natural horn and the muted warbling of keyless bassoons in rival recordings. The playing is professional rather than inspired. Trumpets, I admit, are outstanding - bright and secure, with splendidly pointed articulation: in fact the opening tutti of the Gloria chorus is as thrilling as any on record. The sound of the oboe d’amore (in Qui sedes especially) is pure velvet, and the body of strings sound cultured. On the other hand, the violin soloist in Laudamus te is heavy in tone and phrasing, displaying little of the lightness of touch which all of Bach’s markings and figuration would seem to prescribe. And the flutes in Domine Deus (less so the lovely Benedictus obbligato) play with featureless ‘flat-landscape’ phrasing, for all their beautiful sonority.

The chorus is youthful in both sound and character, and mostly very well-drilled, with sopranos as often as not beautifully clean in attack and sustained tone. Witness the high-lying entries in the second Kyrie fugue, or the delightfully agile singing of the bonae voluntatis countersubject to the et in terra pax fugue. Much the same could be said of the tenors in the Cum Sancto Spiritu fugue, or the basses ‘soli’ in et iterum venturus est cum gloria, both of them difficult to execute cleanly, but here admirably lively and polished. However, detail in the men’s voices is much less easy to pick out - partly the result of a backward recording balance, and partly (as always) a question of register. But partly also a failure (on Müller-Brühl’s part, presumably?) to distinguish between primary and secondary material in contrapuntal textures. One seldom experiences the weight of a choral bass line as one ought, and the all-important plainchant line in Confiteor is almost inaudible!

The choir is fairly secure in the two extraordinary chromatic episodes - notorious pitfalls for even the best choirs - at sepultus est (at end of the Crucifixus) and et expecto resurrectionem (the closing bars of the Confiteor chorus). But some upper notes in the Credo and Confiteor choruses (where there’s no instrumental doubling to support the voices) are distinctly shaky, sounding flat and unsupported. There’s some untidiness in semiquaver passagework too, and, here and there in busy tuttis, evidence that the choir has simply been left to its own devices. Most disappointing of all, the Sanctus and Osanna choruses (being divided into 6 and 8 parts respectively) convey little of the ‘fullness of God’s glory’.

The soloists are all good, well suited to their individual and (in the duets) combined roles, well prepared and well integrated into both the ensemble and Müller-Brühl’s conception. Marianne Beate Kielland (Bach’s Soprano II) deserves a special mention for her glorious sound, the clarity of her diction, and her firm control of vocal registers. The bass, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, sings most appealingly too, despite one or two (I presume unintentional?) explosive resonances.

The recording is transferred at a low level, so you may need to turn your volume up abnormally high to experience the drama of the opening chords. The sound itself is clean, with an agreeable ambience. The distant placing of the chorus is perhaps regrettable, though it is good to be able to savour the instrumental doublings of (for example) the opening Kyrie - so often submerged in more chorally-dominant sound perspectives. There are one or two rather conspicuous edits, mostly between numbers.

This B minor Mass is a real mixed blessing - very good in parts, but rather disappointing in others. I regret my criticisms only because the performance as a whole strikes me as being very genuine, and an obvious labour of love. It’s well worth buying, but its ideal role is as a complement to more ‘senior’ readings which this issue, for all its strengths, cannot possibly displace.

Peter J Lawson



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