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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sanctus is performed at the same high level with superb
choral contribution and a fluidly focused solo from Marcus Ullmann
in the Benedictus.
Mass concludes with the Agnus Dei where alto, Daniel
Taylor provides a fine solo with lovely line and phrasing.
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.
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.