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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [132.03];
St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 – Have mercy, Lord, on me a [7.38];
Cantata No. 11(Praise Our God) BWV 11 – Ah, Tarry Yet b [8.17]
Suzanne Danco (soprano); Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); Peter Pears (tenor); Bruce Boyce (baritone); Norman Walker (bass); George Malcolm (harpsichord); Charles Spinks (organ); Douglas Moore (horn)
BBC Chorus; Boyd Neel Orchestra/George Enescu.
a Kathleen Ferrier; New Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent.
b Kathleen Ferrier; The Jacques Orchestra/Dr Reginald Jacques.
rec. Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, London, 17 July 1951; a Kingsway Hall, London, 6 February 1946; b Kingsway Hall, London, 1 November 1949. ADD mono
ARIADNE 5000 [68.21 + 79.38]

Alternative release of Enescu’s recording of the Mass in B minor:

BBC Legends BBCL 4008-7 (2 CDs)

If ever there was a recording of Bach’s great mass that moved more through vision and absolute commitment than sound quality, this is it. The performance has Enescu’s benign guiding presence within every bar and the sense of a constant heartbeat guiding the tempi is uniquely apparent. This heartbeat regularity was essential to Enescu’s vision of Bach. Although some may find it a bit four-square at times, it does give constancy to a work that in no small part delivers the feeling of something eternal. There are those I know that think this recording the nearest they will ever come to something spiritual in music.

Of the BBC release listed above, I said last year (in my overview of Enescu’s recordings as a performer): "The recorded sound is muddy and, particularly in choral passages, textures can cloy and distort somewhat. All of this is strange given this comes [from] a BBC studio source at a time when recording technology was reasonably advanced."

This new release on the Ariadne label, a subsidiary of SOMM Recordings, is quite different. The re-mastering by Roger Beardsley based on a set of original BBC transcription tapes has significantly opened out the sound range, even though one must admit that the recording itself still shows signs of age. On Ariadne the orchestra appears slightly more forward than on BBC Legends. The "Christe eleison" also shows a marked improvement by distinguishing the string tone from that of the organ obbligato, with the organ taking on a definite character, rather than being an indistinct presence.

It is in the work’s many choral passages that one appreciates most the improvements on offer. I liken the BBC Legends release to having cotton wool in ones ears as one hears it, whilst Ariadne presents the same performance with the cotton wool removed. Sopranos are brighter, mezzos are richer-toned, tenors are more distinct, and basses carry slightly more resonance. Enescu built his sonorities from the bass line upwards, so improvements in the lower vocal and orchestral areas have a particularly appreciable impact on the performance as a whole.

The soloists all contribute keenly to the performance. Ferrier is moving with almost every word and Suzanne Danco is almost her equal in this respect. The Ariadne release gives Danco’s voice more varied colours and presence and this helps greatly to bring her contributions alive. But many will purchase this recording for Ferrier’s contributions, and this is a perfectly acceptable reason.

Of the male soloists, Peter Pears shows the qualities of word-pointing that made him so great in Schubert and Britten. There might be some that find his individual vocal production somewhat out of place with the spirit of Bach’s music – personally I am not one of them. It is good that the Ariadne documentation credits Norman Walker as the bass soloist (BBC Legends fail to do so). His contribution contrasts well with that of Bruce Boyce’s baritone. Together they come across creditably.

Of the two additional Bach arias - sung by Ferrier - Have mercy, Lord, on me is a valuable rarity in her discography, although Ah, Tarry Yet significantly formed part of Decca’s first issue of long-playing records in the UK. Both recordings carry the unique Ferrier stamp of saying so much with simplicity and absolute sureness of tone. The sound quality of both recordings is acceptable. Bonuses indeed after the feast that is the B minor mass.

Ariadne’s accompanying notes are brief and factually accurate, although Bach did not live from 1865-1957 as the rear case liner claims! BBC Legends offers a recollection of Enescu penned by Yehudi Menuhin that takes effusion to its furthest-most point. There is a price difference too between the two releases – in Ariadne’s favour. The Ariadne release is obviously the preferable choice.

Evan Dickerson



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