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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Mass in b, BWV 232 (1714 - 1749) [108.20]
Sunhae Im, soprano; Marianne Beate Kielland, Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano;
Markus Schäfer, tenor; Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass-baritone.
Dresden Chamber Choir.
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Helmut Müller-Brühl
Recorded by Deutschlandfunk in the Sendesaal, Cologne, Germany, November 2003.
5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo on the SACD tracks, 2.0 stereo on the CD tracks.
Notes in English and Deutsch. English translatison of Latin Text. Photos of artists.
Hybrid SACD also playable on CD players

NAXOS 6.110102-03 [53.27 + 54.38]
Available on CD 8.55058586
DVD-audio 5.11010203

Comparison Recordings of the Mass in b:
Hermann Scherchen, VSO & Akademie Kammerchor. [mono ADD] Westminster/JVC MVCW 14015/6.
Robert Shaw, his Chorale and Orchestra. [ADD] RCA/BMG "Living Stereo" 09026-63529-2
Fritz Lehmann, Bavarian Radio Cho. & Orch. Urania & Vanguard [mono] LP
Joshua Rifkin, The Bach Ensemble. Nonesuch 9 79036-2
Johannes Somary, Amor Artis Chorale, ECO [only 2 channel so far] [ADD] Artemis Classics 69967-51242-2
Eugen Jochum, Bavarian Radio Cho. & Orch. [ADD] Philips 438 739-2.
Nicolas Harnoncourt, Wiener Sängerknaben, Concentus Musicus [ADD] Teldec 8.35019 ZA
Also mentioned in the review:
St. Matthew Passion, Peter Schreier, Staatskapelle Dresden. Philips 412 527-2

This work has perhaps the most complicated composition, performance, and recording history of any work by Bach. It was composed in bits and pieces, with the Crucifixus being composed in 1714, the Qui Tollis in 1723, the Gratias Agimus Tibi 1731, Kyrie and Gloria in 1733, all based on earlier sketches. The music for the Credo, which makes it a fully Catholic work, came to light in 1729 as part of Cantata 171. It is assumed that the Et resurrexit is based on a lost concerto. At the time of Bach’s death the work still did not exist as a single manuscript with the title Messe; many performances had caused the pages to be damaged through use and handling, so C.P.E. Bach had to fill in a few missing bars here and there in his father’s style.

The earliest performances in the Nineteenth Century were naturally by full symphony orchestra and large chorus. The 1958 Jochum recording is in these dimensions and for all the outrage directed at it by the original instrument people, the recording is still in print after many years and still carries off the power and excitement of the work. The earliest recording in high fidelity and then-state-of-the-art original instrument/original performance practice was by Hermann Scherchen in 1950. In this brilliant single channel recording the chorus comes across as a crowd of people who are very excited, who have something very important they want to tell you. Anton Heiller is the organist and Anton Dermota the tenor soloist. Later in the fifties Fritz Lehmann’s recording gave Scherchen serious competition with brighter sound, wavery but authentic high natural trumpets, and a more disciplined yet still exuberant chorus.

The first recording in stereo was on RCA in 1960 by the 38-year-old Robert Shaw’s touring performance group (hopefully soon to be released as a three-channel RCA "Living Stereo" SACD). He thinned out the texture by having solo voices sing the choral lines when unaccompanied or accompanied by only a few instruments, with the full chorus only coming in with the full orchestra, an innovation that paved the way for Joshua Rifkin’s 1982 recording with solo voices throughout, a manner of performance we know was at least occasionally utilised in Bach’s time. These two recordings still stand as among the finest ever done of the work, as does Harnoncourt’s 1968 version, the first to use boy sopranos exclusively.

Lest you think Müller-Brühl’s is the first recording in surround sound, that honour belongs to Johannes Somary, the Amor Artis Chorale, and the ECO, released on Vanguard SQ quadraphonic disks in 1970, which recording has not yet been released on a surround sound SACD, but other performances recorded by that conductor made at that time have been, so it may only be a matter of time. Müller-Brühl’s is, however the first high resolution digital recording to be released on surround-sound SACD.

The classic recordings of this work explore the frenzied, passionate ecstasy of the contrapuntal high chorales, and the solo arias give us a chance to catch our breath before being once again hurtled into galactic space. In the notes to the classic Shaw recording the maestro is shown drenched with sweat, hair standing out in spikes like the crown of the Statue of Liberty, baton raised, head back, eyes closed, buffeted as by a high wind by a religious ecstasy which pours out of the music and over him in a flood. Thirty years later, he re-recorded the work in Atlanta, but, like many attempts by old men to revisit the passions of their youth, the result is best not mentioned—more calm dignity and precision and very little ecstasy.

The recording of the St. Matthew Passion by Peter Schreier and the Staatskapelle Dresden is amazing in that it completely ignores the morbid, tragic aspects of this program and treats each musical selection purely as music, performed as lightly and joyously as possible. This is a very unusual approach, of course, and, due to Schreier’s genius—and Bach’s genius—it works brilliantly. We are led to wonder if Bach thought of this work as he thought of his God and his religion, entirely in terms of joy and delight, even when contemplating the gloomy, bloody, and gory aspects of the Christian mythos.

So, with this in mind, is it possible that Bach thought of the Mass in b more lightly than the classic recordings suggest? Clearly that’s what Müller-Brühl thinks, and he has made a careful study of Baroque religious music. He treats the chorales more the way one would perform the Fauré Requiem, lightly and cleanly, deliberately (one assumes) shying away from dynamic, dramatic climaxes and frenzied ecstasy. As a result, the arias become the dramatic high point of the performance, the concentration of emotion, with the choral comments relegated to a connecting, background role. From the photograph of the recording session I count 34 in the chorus, or 8½ voices per part on the average; the contrapuntal lines are clear without exaggeration. The soloists are uniformly excellent and respond to their being in a brighter spotlight by investing their arias with more concern and independent drama than we’re used to. This is a soloists Mass in b.

Further contributing to the smallness of this recording is that it sounds like it is recorded in "European" or ITU775, "side surround" sound, rather than in Hollywood "four in the corner" "rear surround" sound, i.e., there is no centre rear channel information. As a result the acoustic of the recording space is not vividly depicted although the sound sources are well delineated—but not all that much more than, say, the Shaw two channel version when played through a surround sound decoder.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Zane Turner

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