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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor
CD 1
Kyrie [17:39]

Gloria [32:54]
CD 2
Symbolum Nicenum (Credo) [30:42]

Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona Nobis Pacem [20:43]
Gerlinde Sämann (soprano); Patrizio Hardt (soprano); Elisabet Hermans (soprano); Petra Noskaiová (alto); Bernhard Hunziker (tenor); Marcus Niedermeyer (bass)
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 16-19 March 2008, San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Spain), Teatro Auditorio

CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72316 [50.35 + 51:27]
Experience Classicsonline

Sigiswald Kuijken’s continuing series of J.S. Bach’s cantatas on the Accent label has provided some interesting listening of late. While I was initially impressed by what I heard of this set, there was subsequently little doubt in my mind that, for the long-term desert island encampment, the BIS series offered just that bit more sap per sacred song. Now I am in the fascinating position of being able to compare his work in a core piece by Bach with the results obtained by Masaaki Suzuki.

As with the cantata disc I reviewed, Gerlinde Sämann and Petra Noskaiová are part of the cast for this SACD recording of the Mass in B minor. The other singers have no less importance with this recording, with Kuijken’s adherence to the single voice per part in the ‘choir’ setting as proposed by Joshua Rifkin. This contrasts with the chamber choir format of the Collegium Japan which consists of 18 singers but also employs the soloists as choral members. The difference in texture is marked, even with only three or four voices per part, and even with the over-emphasis on the opening ‘K’ in the Kyrie with Suzuki, it is clear from the outset that the Collegium Japan performance is one which has no fear of slower pacing and a grander viewpoint in the more large scale movements. Another difference in texture is the continuo, which is based around an organ for La Petite Bande. This is mixed up with the inclusion of the snap and crispness of a harpsichord for some movements with Collegium Japan. Kuijken’s organ tone is nice and gentle, but has some ‘chuffing’ at the beginning of notes which you may or may not like. There is also a remarkable moment at the beginning of the Qui tollis peccata mundi where four or five mechanical ‘tok’ sounds emanate in the left channel from what can only be the mechanics of this instrument – a minor and excusable flaw on an otherwise sublimely beautiful representation of this movement. The accompaniment in the Domine Deus of the Gloria almost amounts to a pizzicato from the organ, with nice separation and bounce. The same can’t be said for the sound in Suzuki’s organ, which has a woolly warmth, reducing the impact of its rhythmic contribution to background status.

Both of these recordings are very nice indeed, and I don’t really want to be dotting around pointing out differences which are ultimately a matter of taste. The quality of the soloists is an essential aspect which I will come to in a moment. There are however also plenty of crucial moments which indicate the difference in character between these performances. The opening of the Gloria is one of those magnificent Bach moments, busy strings, soaring brass and healthy thwacks from the timpani. Suzuki’s version swings marvellously in the opening, the choir balancing well with the hefty accompaniment. His change of mood between the opening and the subsequent Et in terra pax is also taken with magical skill, the atmosphere being drawn down into more gentle undulations on the turn of a sixpence, but with so much smoothness that the surprise is all the greater. Kuijken goes for bigger sounding drums which are more thuddy and less alert sounding, though impressively deep. The problem with single singers is fairly well defined in this section. Even with the brass somewhat less prominent in the balance, the voices drop in the general mix, making the text harder to follow. The result is quite exciting, but there is no escaping the struggle the voices have against the massed forces of the band. The change in atmosphere from this to the Et in terra pax is less marked, with Kuijken’s pacing swifter, more jolly and less peaceful. I grant the flexibility single voices give in the more technically demanding sections of this movement, but Suzuki’s more restrained approach solves pretty much all of these problems. This in turn results in lower tension, but allows the resonances of the instruments and singing more time to develop and the ear more space to follow and appreciate the lines.

These are both state of the art recordings and represent the latest thinking in the interpretation of this music. In a sense however, there are two different aspects of both of these recordings which reminded me of some of the more old-fashioned styles of performing practice in this music. Suzuki’s slower pacing and richer palette in some of the movements could, cut and pasted onto modern instruments, easily pass muster in the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. His soloists, expressive and natural sounding, do portray the mass texts with great refinement and clarity. Suzuki doesn’t insist on minimum vibrato, but has clearly chosen soloists such as Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze for their well matched tone colour and natural sense of expression. Where I find Kuijken’s overall picture occasionally retro sounding is in the soloists. This is not all the time; and not levelled at individuals in order to carp, rather an observation of which listeners can take note and decide for themselves. Soprano II, Patrizia Hardt, can come across a bit more operatic than ecclesiastical, something you may find in something like the Laudamus te, where the moments where she restricts her vibrato can sometimes sound as if this goes against her nature. Marcus Niedermayr’s bass is pleasantly light and carries a universally swift vibrato which is fine, but goes against the character of the ensemble in places where the other singers are restraining theirs. His solo character in the Quoniam to solis sanctus is a bit over-sibilant and isn’t really a highlight of the recording. Peter Kooij is more authoritative sounding on the BIS recording in this movement, but is upstaged by the horn soloist. Petra Noskaiová has a deep, sometimes rather plummy alto, but is nicely expressive in the Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris. Comparing her against Robin Blaze is to compare chalk and cheese, but while there are those who still find high male voices hard to get used to he does get closer to what we might imagine as an ‘authentic’ Bach sound. Honours are about equal in the tenor solo Benedictus, there being little to chose between Bernhard Hunziker’s silvery tone against Gerd Türk’s more earnest intensity of sound.

Kuijken shines in the swinging rhythms of swift movements like the Credo in unum Deum which opens disc 2. This has a drive and urgency which is a joy to hear, and the solo choir has a good synergy with the instrumental ensemble here. Going straight to Suzuki for the same moment, and the surprise is that he is even faster, not only believing in one God, but in a big hurry to go and see him for the next racing tips. Vocal matching once again plays an important role in the soprano/alto duet of Et in unum Dominum Jesum Christum and while the Sampson/Blaze combination is an early-music winner Sämann and Noskaiová are very good too, only being inclined to leap out a little in rising passages. There are plenty of moments in the B minor Mass which you want to take you beyond this world and onto a higher plane. In the Et incarnatus est I have this more with Suzuki than with Kuijken, the slower pace, greater weight of the strings and the more ethereal sound of the choir creating the kind of atmosphere which is beyond price. And then, Kuijken is more moving in the Crucificus which follows, where Suzuki pushes on with a faster pace, ironing out the sighing effect of the descending lines. As you might expect, the final Dona nobis pacem expands wonderfully in Suzuki’s performance, and Kuijken comes in at a brisk but life-affirming 2:13 to the former’s grandly staged 3:38.

Enough picking over details. I had been hoping to be able to take a ‘like with like’ comparison of these two recordings and come down clearly on one side or another, but instead I’m once again in that wretched Libran trap of liking both almost equally, and for almost entirely different reasons. Kuijken creates magical effects with his soloists and La Petite Bande, and the big acoustic of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is perfect for his players. There is a big reverb, but this doesn’t disguise the detail in the playing and has an impressive effect only at the ends of movements. There are incidentally a number of fascinating, upward gazing photos of this location in the booklet by Hans Morren, who contributes a short comment on ‘Painting with Light.’ The Collegium Japan is very much at home in their usual location of the Kobe Shoin Women’s University, which also has a fine acoustic. In almost too simplistic general terms, if you are looking for Bach which has its contrasts in the differences between full choral sound and soloist ensembles, allied to an approach which broadens tempi at moments of the greatest sonic and expressive splendor, then your inclination will be more towards Suzuki on BIS. If you agree with Kuijken’s more compact single voice to a part approach which has its strengths in terms of vocal intensity in some of the more crucial choral movements, then you will be more inclined towards this Challenge Classics box. Kuijken admits to certain pros and cons with the decision to go with single voices, and is not dogmatic in the rights and wrongs of either solution. He does however point out the insights and artistic satisfaction he has gained from making the shift away from full choirs, and with the results on this recording one can only respect and admire the way in which Bach’s Mass in B minor still stands as one of the greatest of baroque masterpieces with such a minimum of means. This is not the first time he has recorded this work, though while there is an earlier live recording on the Urtext label which shares a few of the same soloists as on this new SACD version I hear that this is only a single disc with just a few highlights. There are of course dozens of other recordings, and as the years go by first choices change. Andrew Parrott on the Virgin label held sway in 2000, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv was one of the top recommendations a couple of years ago. New recordings and different interpretational approaches don’t render the earlier recordings invalid, but very much keep this magnificent music alive – something for which we can all be grateful. 

Whatever your opinions on Rifkin theory, there is nothing hair-shirt about this recording from Sigiswald Kuijken, and despite my picky comments about some of the vocal details I can recommend it thoroughly. Would it be my desert island choice? I’m still not entirely sure, though the arguments only really arise when doing those infuriating A/B comparisons on which we reviewers seem to be so keen. Playing this as a ‘stand alone’ recording I had no difficulty in being swept along with Bach’s creation. Intriguingly, the solo voice effect is also swept along with the instrumentation, so that the ear can often accept the voices as ‘choral’ when the instrumental support also expands. Is this what Bach would have heard? The SACD sound of the whole thing is magnificent, and most certainly the equal of any other version I know. If you already possess and love a ‘conventional’ version of this work but would like to expand your horizons with a single voice version then this is the place to be. If you just love Bach and can’t get enough, then this is also a very good place to be. With wonderful sounds surrounding me as I write from my desert island, all I can do is send you a postcard which says, ‘wish you were here…’.

Dominy Clements


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