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
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"-
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.
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.
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  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  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.
see also review
by Peter Lawson