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Lyrita New Recording
Sarah Beth Briggs
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor (BWV 232) (1747-49)
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
The B-minor Mass by Bach is generally considered one of the
greatest monuments in music history. And 'monumental' it is, not
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
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.
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