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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor BWV 232 [1:46:39]
Catherine Patriasz (soprano); Barbara Schlick (soprano); Charles Brett (alto); Howard Crook (tenor); Peter Kooy (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe

rec. April 1988 Minderbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium DDD
VIRGIN VERITAS 6931972 [54:30 + 52:09]


Experience Classicsonline

Herreweghe's 1988 B Minor Mass is gentle without being genteel; polished without being perfect and genuine while also being cloyingly genial. It was a recording that did much to establish the conductor's credentials for the work. And it was something of a compromise. Neither one-to-a-part, nor 'over'-interpreted, its greatest virtue is probably consistency. There is a pleasing logic that drives the music from the first notes of the perhaps rather under-exposed Kyrie to the quiet and uninsistent dona nobis pacem.This reissue of that 1988 account also from Virgin shares only the bass, Peter Kooy, and the Ghent Collegium Vocale and Orchestra with the B Minor Mass which Herreweghe recorded on Harmonia Mundi (HMC90 1614/5) ten years later - and ten years ago. That represented in some ways a step backward; it had a more perfunctory, not to say 'rough', 'ragged' feel to it.

So of the two recordings by Herreweghe, the earlier 1988 version is to be preferred. There is a quiet and undemonstrative commitment to the structure, and to the beauty. There is also an acknowledgement on the conductor's part that there are limitless depths and heights to Bach's conception, from however piecemeal a set of original resources it's now known that the Mass was assembled. But those heights and depths themselves, while alluded to, are not consistently experienced - even by attentive listeners.This is not because of hasty tempi - the pace is dignified throughout… and exciting - at the Cum sancto spiritu, for example. Nor is the lack of real spirit in this reading due to inadequate solo singing, which is studied and thoughtful at all turns. Nor yet because Herreweghe is insufficiently versed in the work and its significance; still less because of any waywardness or intemperateness with the timbres on which he insists. Nor has he attempted to perform merely the notes on the page with disregard to the Mass' soul. All five singers - Patriasz, Schlick and Kooy, in particular - invest much reflection and consideration in their performances. 

Nevertheless, though not lacklustre, this B Minor Mass will not be everyone's ideal. For what is in some ways Bach's greatest achievement, a performance really succeeds and is truly memorable when it exposes at once the grandeur, the profundity and the humanity inherent in every note. These are qualities which reveal themselves as much from the structure - successions of key and tempi, for instance - as from individual moments and passages which both form part of an ineffable whole. And are also sufficiently poignant as to seem almost self-standing; take the opening of the Sanctus, for example. Sadly, Herreweghe's guidance, while not perfunctory or superficial, somehow fails to fulfil most aspirations to these qualities. We know they're there … waiting. We know Herreweghe appreciates that these would add to the experience. But they're always kept back, as if in reserve.Technically this is not a bad account. The singers' commitment is beyond doubt. Herreweghe's empathy with the work is clear. The acoustic is what you'd expect from twenty years ago. The booklet is a little on the perfunctory side, lacking the full text and not really saying anything new about the work. As a historical document of the way Herreweghe was thinking at the time, when authentic early music practice was well established, it has its value. But this reading is definitely not a first choice. For that, look instead to Suzuki (BIS CD1701) or Gardiner (DG 415514).

Mark Sealey




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