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Johann Sebastian BACH (1785-1850)
Mass in B minor
(1733-1749?) [107:31]
CD 1
Missa (Kyrie and Gloria)
CD 2
Symbolum Nicenum (Credo), Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona Nobis Pacem
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Rachel Nicholls (soprano); Robin Blaze (alto); Gerd Türk (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass)

Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, March 2007
BIS SACD 1701/02 [52.58 + 54:33]


The enemy of excellence is greatness? True, generally – but not when it comes to Bach’s Mass in B-minor (BWV 232) which would be a masterpiece even in the least of performances. It is a gift to humanity when performed as well as I’ve now had the pleasure of experiencing thrice in short succession. First courtesy of the Netherlands Bach Society and Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics, then as I received the newly released Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS, and finally just before Christmas when Ton Koopman directed the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Herkulessaal in Munich – which was also broadcast live on radio.

When the work was about to be published around 1820, Hans Georg Nägeli announced it as “the greatest musical work of art of all times and all peoples”. Publisher Nägeli may have aimed more at boosting subscriptions rather than trying to divine the true ramification of the rediscovery of the Mass in B-minor – but unwittingly or not, he was pretty close. I am hardly alone in thinking of the B-minor mass as one of the cultural pillars of Western Civilization. Whether it is a complete patchwork or put together from pieces with a design in mind - most musicologists strongly suggest the latter - this music is, certainly metaphorically, possibly literally, divine. 

Now I have two “HIP” versions on my desk, both of them on hybrid-SACDs, and both by renown Bach conductors. Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics in the most luxurious CD box imaginable. The accompanying book was produced in collaboration with the Museum Catharijneconvent and boasts near 100 pictures, reprints, and illustrations. The sturdy packaging with the golden imprint makes the space-saving slim box of the Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS look downright humble. 

Exteriors and superficialities should not be underestimated – but ultimately it is the content that matters. And here the two recordings are more alike than different. The total timing of van Veldhoven is 105 minutes; Suzuki clocks in at just over 107. That’s similar to Harnoncourt (II), Brüggen, Rifkin, Koopman, and Gardiner and just a tad speedier than Herreweghe’s wonderful second recording on Harmonia Mundi. Junghänel is the fastest I am aware of, nearly staying below 100 minutes. But it is a far cry from the 2-hour-plus performances of Karl Richter, Celibidache, Scherchen, Jochum, von Karajan, Shaw, or Klemperer  – and for all those who insist on their B-minor masses big-boned and with mighty choruses, neither Suzuki nor van Veldhoven with their two and three ripienists to a part will do. That said, anyone who is not ruling out the “HIP” approach but isn’t quite sold on it yet, will probably be converted by either recording and agree that the historically informed approach can offer some of the finest and most exciting music-making. 

The sound and impact of both recordings is similarly excellent, their singers outstanding, and the choral parts that we love in the Kyrie, the Sanctus, or the Gloria come through with surprising opulence and splendor. Yet differences in detail abound between Suzuki and Veldhoven – often a matter of Suzuki taking a marginally more relaxed pace than his Dutch colleague or sounding more restrained even when he is technically a bit faster. 

In the Quoniam tu solus sanctus Suzuki uses the harpsichord as the continuo instrument of choice - with his son, Masato, playing - while van Veldhoven lets the strings free rein to support the bass solo. There is little to choose between the veterans Peter Kooij (BIS) and Peter Harvey (Channel Classics) – the latter perhaps with a more open, regal voice. The horn might be a tad more stable on the Dutch production (Teunis van der Zwart) but clearer and more in front of the bassoons with the Japanese band (Olivier Darbellay).

Dorothee Mields is a lovely soprano for van Veldhoven. But the recording of the Bach Collegium Japan has Carolyn Sampson and there simply isn’t anything better than her tasteful, lean, and full voice – whether it is live (as with Koopman) or on record. The Christe Eleison between Sampson and Rachel Nicholls - both also sing in the soprano I and soprano II chorus parts, respectively - is one of those moments that feel like Bach himself is smiling. 

Similarly, the countertenors Robin Blaze (BIS) and Matthew White (Channel Classics) turn the alto-oboe duet Qui sedes ad dextram Patris into something that might appease those who would rather hear a mezzo-soprano in this role/ This might actually be historically accurate, regardless of what the British-influenced Belgio-Flemish-Dutch historical performance tradition has come to accept as the HIP-gospel. Blaze has a slightly more nimble, more feminine voice – White’s has a more dramatic ring to it. Masamitsu San’nomiya’s oboe-playing meanwhile, devoid of extraneous noises, air, or hiss and full of sweetness, is exemplary. 

Ultimate splendor is achieved in the Sanctus. Suzuki and the BIS engineers make the fourteen and twenty instrumentalists involved sound like a grand ensemble – and he gives his forces all the time to draw on the sumptuous qualities of the zenith of the Mass. Van Veldhoven and the audiophile crew of Channel Classics achieve an equivalent impression. He’s given slightly more reverberation; both have ample space around all musicians. Van Veldhoven does it by pushing along at a brisk pace: different means but with the result every bit as exciting.

The tenors on either recording are without fault and make for a impressive Benedictus with Gerd Türk (BIS) having a slight edge over Charles Daniels through his effortless but strong clarity. Türk also manages to hold his own against Sampson in the Domine Deus while Charles Daniels collaborates with Mme. Mields on a more even level. The combination of Sampson and Daniels, who sang together in the Koopman performance, was equally delectable. Kiyomi Suga’s clean Traverso-playing is almost matched by her colleague on the Dutch production in these two most prominent parts for flute – and Suzuki’s notably tighter pace in the Benedictus only benefits her line. 

The Osanna in Excelsis is a great moment of trumpet, timpani and chorus-imbued splendor – and a highlight among the string of thrilling moments in the Suzuki recording. It may also be one of the few miscalculations on van Veldhoven’s part because his extraordinarily swift take might well be exciting but also sounds rushed. 

As regards tempi in general, though, I could put it unkindly thus: Wherever Suzuki is slower than van Veldhoven, he seems to drag (in comparison, only!) – wherever Suzuki is faster, van Veldhoven seems to have more momentum. It is this subtle impression that I take away from the two issues more than any of the more obvious little differences – and an impression I would never have gotten from Suzuki had it not been for direct comparison. Either are a match for the best of the HIP B-minor masses out there, whether compared to Herreweghe (II) or Gardiner or whatever else your current preference may be. There’s an embarrassment of riches of great recordings of this work available now – but if pressed, I’d rank both among the handful of best recordings made, regardless of style. Among which should also be included the 1999 Rilling and the 1961 Richter recordings.

Jens F. Laurson



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