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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (circa 1740) [101.28]
Mechtild Bach (soprano)
Daniel Taylor (alto)
Marcus Ullmann (tenor)
Raimund Nolte (bass)
Kammerchor Stuttgart
Barockorchester Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. March 2004, Ev. Kirche, Reutlingen-Goningen
CARUS 83.211 [50.14 + 51.14]


Bach’s Mass in B Minor is strong enough to work in a variety of performance styles. It can cope with being performed by anything from a full symphony orchestra and chorus to one singer per part and large-scale instrumental ensemble. Scholars are still arguing about what performing forces Bach would have employed. After all, though based on existing music, the final piece was created without a specific performance in mind. But Bach worked within the Lutheran performing tradition with one singer per part with possible strengthening from additional singers. For a modern account of the work to be successful the conductor must acknowledge this and find a suitable solution to the associated problems. Simply ignoring them won’t do.

Frieder Bernius’s new recording on the Carus label uses the Stuttgart Chamber Choir and the Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra with four soloists. Accordingly we know from the outset that Bernius is likely to be placing the Mass firmly in the Handel oratorio camp: performing the work with the sort of authentic forces that Handel might have used for his oratorios. As these oratorio performances are better documented than Bach’s it is this idea of chamber choir and chamber orchestra which has been very influential since the early days of the early music movement.

Bernius takes the opening Kyrie at a pretty sedate speed. His orchestra plays with good crisp rhythms and a lively feel for the music, but I rather wanted more sense of line. Throughout I felt that both the orchestral and choral contributions did not give sufficient definition to the interplay of lines in the music. At times you feel that Bernius is balancing his forces vertically - in the 19th century manner - rather than creating a series of interweaving horizontal lines.

But I mustn’t take that complaint too far because, when the chorus come in after the long instrumental peroration, there is excellent balance between voices and orchestra. There is a real feel here, and in other places on the disc, of the choir extending the orchestral lines rather than simply imposing on them as happens a lot on modern and period performances. Throughout the performance Bernius treats choir and orchestra alike as one large group, interweaving and integrating them. This is as it should be.

After the sober joys of the Kyrie the Gloria bursts in with a dance-like feeling of joy. Mechtild Bach contributes a fine warm-voiced account of the Laudamus te with good violin solo contribution. For Domine Deus she is joined by tenor Marcus Ullman; Bach sings both the Soprano 1 and Soprano 2 solos. Ullman has a bright, forward tenor voice with a good sense of line, though here I felt he could have relaxed more. This movement has a fine flute obbligato. But when the voices were singing I would have liked the flute to have been more prominent so as to give more of a feeling of a trio rather than a duet with a flute in the background. The flutes grace the moving choral contribution in Qui tollis but perhaps the flutes should be more central and do more than just decorate. 

Daniel Taylor sings Qui Sedes with a fine sense of line and here the lovely oboe solo is a real partner, creating a proper duet-like feel. Unfortunately there is no sense of this movement arising out of the previous music. As the performance unfolds this is one of the slight weaknesses of Bernius’s view of the work. He creates a series of fine moments, but does not seem to think structurally. The individual movements do not link into one over-arching structure. 

Raimund Nolte contributes a fine, focused baritone in Quoniam tu solus sanctus, with its uplifting horn solos and the first part of the work finishes with the joyous choral contribution in Cum Sancto Spiritu. 

In the second half the chorus really comes into its own, with whole sequences of fabulous choral episodes. Ironically, it is here that I miss the one-to-a-part versions most, as these give better transitions between choral movements and solo movements.

Bernius starts the Credo at a steady speed and the chorus responds with crisp firm singing with good woodwind comments. The duet, Et in unum Dominum is steady and stately. Bach and Taylor provide shapely vocal lines but I would have liked more line and definition in the passagework.

The chorus impress in this movement, whether its in their sense of line in the Et incarnatus est or in the explosive opening of Et resurrexit. In this latter movement the trumpets are again spectacular. But Bernius has the singers introduce a throbbing feeling to the moving Crucifixus which makes it sound rather 19th century. 

Nolte impresses again with his mellifluous solo in Et in Spiritum Sanctum. As ever the woodwind solos are excellent here. The lovely choral line, with bubbling lower wind, in Confiteor is marred by the rather awkward transition to Et exspecto but once there, the movement makes for a crisp and fitting climax.

The Sanctus is performed at the same high level with superb choral contribution and a fluidly focused solo from Marcus Ullmann in the Benedictus.

The Mass concludes with the Agnus Dei where alto, Daniel Taylor provides a fine solo with lovely line and phrasing.

Chorus and orchestra, under Bernius’s direction, perform at a consistently high level on this disc. Despite my reservations about using a choir in this work and about Bernius’s lack of feel for the piece’s architecture, this is a highly recommendable version. If you would like at middle of the road period performance, which steers a good path between the various theories, then this is a pretty good one to go for.

Admittedly Bernius’s Mass in B Minor is not quite on a par with some of the fine period performances of the past, but it comes pretty close and makes a highly recommendable modern version.

Robert Hugill 



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