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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor BWV 232 (1733-38)
Ruth Holton (soprano)
Matthias Rexroth (alto)
Christoph Genz (tenor)
Klaus Mertens (baritone)
Thomanerchor, Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig/Georg Christoph Biller
rec. 28 July 2000, Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany. DDD.

If, like me, you have a thing about hearing a musical work performed in an acoustic or specific location in which it was esigned to be performed, then here is a filmed performance with as fine credentials as you could get. Not only is this Bach’s own church but the choir, that of the St Thomas Choir School, Leipzig, is the one the composer trained and wrote for, albeit two and a half centuries ago. This is not just sentimentality. There is comfort in the knowledge that we are sharing Bach’s own acoustic sound-world.
Before somebody comes back at me to remind me there is no evidence the Mass in B minor was ever performed in St Thomas’s, I say that since the Mass is constructed out of music Bach wrote at different times for different occasions, as well as shifting some of it back into other works, then at least portions of it must have been performed here.
Incidentally there is no firm evidence of any performance of the mass in the 18th century except that of the Credo at Hamburg in 1786, 26 years after Bach’s death, by which time the composer was ‘old hat’. It was conducted by his son Carl who was far more famous at the time than his father ever had been. Nevertheless, a critic gushed in the Hamburger Correspondent afterwards that the “five-voiced Credo … is one of the most splendid works that has ever been heard”. Even today, there are those who would sympathise with that judgement and the performance on this DVD is sufficiently good to substantiate the claim. But there is more to this disc than the performance alone.
First the sound. One of the pleasures I found is the way that the spacious acoustic is captured. The reverberation in sacred buildings can be a problem and if you listen, for example, to the loud last chord that ends the Gloria section you can hear an echo that takes a good three seconds to decay. This certainly adds a spacious bloom but remarkably there is none of the clouding or fuzziness that often comes with reverberation. For this I assume the recording engineers must take some credit and they may, for all I know, be producing a clearer sound than that heard by the audience.
An added pleasure is the sound of the boys’ choir, and I mean all-boys because unlike many English cathedral choirs the broken voices are teenage members of the school. Also the size of the group is larger than an average cathedral choir. The result is a treble sound of superb body, albeit offset by the more lightweight sound of the young tenors and basses.
Who knows whether this approximates to what would have been heard in Bach’s Church, but although the School is twice as big as in the 18th century, Bach still had 54 choir boys so presumably he could have rustled up a sizeable choir if required.
The four soloists perform competently, particularly English soprano Ruth Holton and bass Klaus Mertens. Tenor Christoph Genz I thought a little underpowered but not as much as male alto Mathias Rexroth. As well as taking the alto solos, Rexroth joins Ruth Holton in the soprano duet in the Christe Eleison - although the part is no higher than in the solos. The resulting difference in timbre between the two does not make for a happy match.
In spite of the relative authenticity of the boys’ choir, the orchestral forces are provided by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which may be a disappointment to some since not only are the instruments modern but there is little regard for baroque playing practice. Much of the time this may not matter but I did wince at the sickly sweet legato of the solo horn obbligato (representative of Christ) that accompanies the bass solo in the Quoniam. This is a very long way from the earthy sound of a natural, valveless horn as employed, for example, in Richard Hickox’s admired Chandos CD recording.
The conductor Georg Christoph Biller has impeccable credentials being a former pupil of the Choir School and the 16th successor to Bach on his appointment as Kantor in 1992. He conducts with a sense of irresistible joy that seems to be getting the very best out of his choir. Compared with their famous counterparts, the Vienna Boys, whom I last saw in a performance of The Creation, these boys perform with superior verve, tone, discipline and technical expertise, although boys being boys there is the occasional wandering of attention and intonation. Wisely the conductor keeps the tempo steady in the virtuoso choral numbers, notably the Cum Sancto Spiritus that climaxes the Gloria. It would be unreasonable to expect young trebles to pull off the frightening strings of semi-quavers at breakneck speed with the precision of a crack choir of mature females such as employed by Hickox on his CD. Nevertheless, there is no loss of excitement.
The camera suitably roams to allow us to see much of the location, including, at the beginning and end, glimpses of Bach’s grave. St Thomas’s Church resonates with history. Not only was Bach choirmaster for 17 years, but Mendelssohn and Mozart performed in the church, Wagner was christened there and Martin Luther had preached from the pulpit. Following the attentions of "Bomber" Harris towards the end of the Second World War the building was restored and the interior, with its more recently whitewashed walls and colourful trimmings, presumably looks something like it did in Bach's day.
The DVD’s booklet carries only the most basic information and a short, three-paragraph essay on the Mass.
By coincidence (or is it?) this DVD release of a performance in 2000 comes out around about the same time as a rival DVD of the same work performed in the same place in 2004. That one is conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, also with the Gewandhaus but with the orchestra’s own choral forces and it has been very well received. However, if like me, you put considerable weight on the refreshing sound of a boys’ choir that is descended from Bach’s own, then you will want to own this performance conducted by one of Bach’s successors.

John Leeman


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