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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor (BWV 232) (1747-49)
Johannette Zomer (soprano); Matthew White (counter-tenor); Charles Daniels (tenor); Dorothee Mields (soprano); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
rec. December 2006, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands. DDD
CHANNEL CLASSICS CCSSA25007 [53:30 + 52:45]

The B-minor Mass by Bach is generally considered one of the greatest monuments in music history. And 'monumental' it is, not only because of the scoring for up to eight voices and a full range of the then current instruments, but also because of its proportions and architectural character. One of its most remarkable features is that it is structured with an almost mathematical precision yet is full of expression.
There are many unanswered questions about the B-minor Mass: why was it composed, why did it take so long to reach the form in which we know it today, and had Bach planned a complete Mass setting from the beginning? The story of this work and how it developed during Bach's career is discussed at length in the booklet by the Dutch scholar Pieter Dirksen. In its present form it is one of the last works in Bach's life: during his final years he extended and reworked the existing sections at the same time as labouring at his Kunst der Fuge. And as Bach was increasingly under the stress of his deteriorating health, one may assume that he didn't expect it to be performed during his life - or ever, considering the fact that music of the past was seldom performed in those days. This could lead to the conclusion that Bach didn't have a particular performance in mind, and that he was merely aiming at leaving a musical testimony to the world. As in the later stages of his life musical taste and style started to change. He must have felt that he was the last representative of an era soon to be gone for ever.
This makes it difficult to decide how to perform the Mass. As you perhaps know, the world of Bach interpretation is in the middle of a debate about how many singers and instrumentalists were involved in Bach's own performances of his works, in particular his religious music. Scholars such as Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott argue that usually religious vocal music was performed with one voice per part. This view meets both support and resistance. The Dutch keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman has recorded all of Bach's cantatas with a choir for the tutti, and strongly disagrees with the one-voice-per-part theory. His Japanese pupil and colleague Masaaki Suzuki apparently looks at it the same way. In his Bach Collegium Japan recording project with Bach's cantatas he so far has used a choir and the latest volumes of this series suggest he continues to do so. Jos van Veldhoven, the director of the Netherlands Bach Society, leans towards the view of Rifkin and Parrott: some years ago he disbanded the choir and decided to work with solo voices and additional 'ripienists', depending on the repertoire. It seems he doesn't take the one-voice-per-part theory too literally: both in his recording of Bach's St John Passion of some years ago. In this new recording of the B-minor Mass he uses more ripienists than someone like Joshua Rifkin believes Bach ever used.
The fact that the Mass in its present form was never performed during Bach's life and that it was first and foremost composed for performance at the court in Dresden makes it difficult to decide how many singers one needs. The theories of Rifkin and Parrott may be correct in regard to performances in Leipzig, the circumstances in Dresden could have been different. From this perspective one could argue that any scoring is plausible as long as it doesn't go beyond what was common practice in Germany around 1750. In the liner notes of his 1982 recording of the B-minor Mass, however, Rifkin argues that there are enough reasons to perform the work with one voice per part. He is also convinced that Bach never had ripienists in mind. In his remarks about the performance, Jos van Veldhoven tells us little about his decision to use ripienists. He merely states that he believes that the performance of Bach's vocal music was part of a long tradition in Germany, which included, for instance, the use of 'favoriti' - solo voices - and 'capellae' - a 'choir'. With the use of five solo voices, which in some sections are joined by two 'ripienists' per part, the result isn't all that different from the recent recording by Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan. Suzuki uses a choir of three voices per part, but his soloists refrain from singing in the tutti sections.
Let us move to the actual performance of the Netherlands Bach Society. On the whole this is a good performance, thanks to the quality of the vocal soloists, the ripieno singers, the players and the generally good blending of all the musicians. For instance, the two Kyrie sections are impressive and the second section of the Gloria, Et in terra pax, is truly monumental. In this part the transition from the solo section 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' to the closing tutti 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' has been realised very well. The latter section is performed at a rather high speed, which seems to me very appropriate. In the Credo the sections 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Et resurrexit' also get excellent performances. The 'Sanctus' could have been taken a little faster, but apart from that it is given a fine account.
The soloists do a fine job, although I have some reservations here and there. Dorothee Mields, Johannette Zomer and Charles Daniels are most impressive. The latter's performance of the Benedictus is marvellous, with exquisite articulation and dynamic shading. His strongly speech-like interpretation contrasts with Matthew White's performance of the Agnus Dei, where he sings with too much legato and little dynamic differentiation. I have more or less the same problem with Peter Harvey, for instance in 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum' in the Credo. On the whole his singing is a little bland and undifferentiated. In many performances the duets are problematic, because the voices don't blend. Fortunately that is no problem here. The two sopranos do well in the Christe eleison, although I would have liked it to be a little more sparkling. Rarely have I heard the duet of soprano and tenor 'Domine Deus' (Gloria) so beautifully sung as it is here by Dorothee Mields and Charles Daniels. Also good is the duet of soprano and alto (Mields and White) in the Credo, 'Et in unum Dominum'.
But there are aspects of this recording I am less happy with. In general I find the playing of the strings too bland and not sharp enough. A sharper articulation and more dynamic accents would not have gone amiss – listen for example to the instrumental passage which follows the opening tutti of the first Kyrie. The solo violin in 'Laudamus te' (Gloria) is a bit dull. The horn and the bassoons in the bass aria 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' (Gloria), are great, as is the transverse flute in the duet 'Domine Deus'.
The use of concertists and ripienists seems to me rather arbitrary. I wondered why, all of a sudden, the ripienists came in. Another thing is that in the tutti sections the soloists tend to dominate proceedings. The unity of concertists and ripienists is historically totally justified, but by using solo singers in combination with what are basically ensemble singers there is always the danger that the former are too dominant, and that is sometimes the case here. In some sections where all concertists are involved, as in 'Et in terra pax' in the Gloria, the balance between them isn't always ideal with the upper voices tending to overshadow the lower ones.
The Italian pronunciation of the Latin text is totally incomprehensible. There’s no justification for that. Some soloists seem at odds with the language as their Italian pronunciation is not applied with complete consistency.
On the whole I have listened with interest and often with satisfaction to this reading. At the same time there are just a little too many shortcomings to label it a top-notch performance. The sizeable booklet contains a number of beautiful pictures from the Catharijne Convent, a museum of religious art in Utrecht. That in itself is very nice to have, in particular as the pictures have been reproduced in excellent quality and are explained by the accompanying notes. I would also like to mention the thorough programme notes by Pieter Dirksen.
Johan van Veen


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