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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor BWV 232 (1733-1738)
CD 1: I. Kyrie II. Gloria
CD 2: III. Credo IV. Sanctus
Agnes Giebel (soprano), Janet Baker (alto), Nicolai Gedda (tenor), Hermann Prey (baritone), Franz Crass (bass)
BBC Chorus
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. October and November 1967, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD

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In 1962, Walter Legge invited Klemperer to make a recording of Bach's Mass in B minor for EMI. Although the Mass was a work that Klemperer was strongly drawn to, he nonetheless declined the offer. He was reluctant to conduct the work using the vast forces that were typically employed for performances as he believed it should be performed with numbers similar to those that Bach would have envisaged. Several years later he proposed a recording of the piece using "authentic" forces of a choir of 48 and under 50 instrumentalists - hence this recording.
The Mass is an extremely important work. Bach originally composed a short version in 1733 as an offering to the new Elector of Saxony. The great composer then spent a decade studying Mass settings by composers both living and dead and only in 1748-9 did he complete the full version of the B minor Mass, recycling some of his best music thus far. To this day it remains a mystery why he composed the work, given the fact that it wasn't commissioned. It is suggested that he saw it as the highest musical form, setting the greatest of Christian rites and therefore both a personal statement of belief and the pinnacle of his life's work.
The Mass clearly meant a great deal to Klemperer, also, who stated that "for me Bach's B minor Mass is the greatest and most unique music ever written". On top of his "authentic forces" condition, Klemperer was very picky about way it was recorded and the choice of soloists. He worked hard to ensure that he captured the musical and dramatic effects he wanted - for example, making the choir sit down for Et Incarnatus Est to create a disembodied, ethereal sound - which works brilliantly.
The outcome is a wonderful recording. The Mass opens with the Kyrie, taken at a steady pace, which unfolds nicely and is appropriately full of pathos. The soloists are all excellent - Baker with her rich, mature voice outstanding in Laudamus Te, the tenor Nicolai Gedda quite - but not too -  dramatic with just the right amount of vibrato, and baritone Hermann Prey and bass Franz Crass both lyrical and dexterous. Baker, meanwhile sings the stunningly beautiful Agnus Dei with an incredibly deeply-felt searing intensity.  The singers work well together in the duets - particularly Baker and Giebel in a gorgeous rendition of Et In Unum Dominum.
The BBC Chorus are excellent, producing a gloriously full sound in Gratias Agimus Tibi, in an incredibly passionate Cum Sancto Spiritu, and in the exultant Sanctus, full of joy and glory - they are also wonderfully otherworldly and eerie in Et exspecto resurrectionem Mortuorum. Nor does the New Philharmonia Orchestra let the side down - listen, for example, to the beautifully gossamer instrumental introduction to Domine Deus or the tender, melting strings in Agnus Dei.
Klemperer has the balance just right in this performance - it is neither soupy and sentimental nor cold and clinical, but retains a wonderful dramatic quality without ever going overboard. The individual lines are allowed to sing out with clarity, and Klemperer's respectful approach does justice to the spirit of the piece as well as to the written music itself. Overall, this performance is full of  a sense of radiance, beauty and nobility and is one I can heartily recommend.
Em Marshall

EMI Great Recordings of the Century themed review page


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