Mass in B Minor BWV 232 [106:42]
Missae BWV 233-236
Sanctus BWV 238 [119:47]
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 [149:39]
Barbara Schlick, Angès Mellon, Catherine Atriasz (sopranos); Gérard
Lesne, Michael Chance, Charles Brett, (altos); Christoph Prégardien,
Howard Crook (tenors); Peter Kooy (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. April 1988, Minderbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium (BWV 232), April
and July 1990, Abbaye aux Dames, Saintes, France (BWV 233-236, 238),
January 1989, Minderbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium (BWV 248).
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6482912 [6 CDs: 376:08]
Philippe Herreweghe has spent most of his career recording
for Harmonia Mundi, yet, for a short time, he recorded some
of Bach’s sacred music for Virgin. This box set contains 6 CDs
and most of his Bach recordings for that label; it leaves out
two discs of cantatas he recorded for them. Included are two
well-known works - the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass
in B Minor - as well as two smaller masses that are rarely
recorded. It’s worth noting that Herreweghe recently left Harmonia
Mundi to found his own label, f, whose name will make it too
easy for people to fail to find his recordings.
Herreweghe’s experience with Bach goes back a long way. He was
the chorus-master, with Collegium Vocale Gent, on a number of
sacred cantata recordings made by Gustav Leonhardt in the ground-breaking
set by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt for Teldec. Herreweghe has
always had a very satisfying approach to Bach, both in his cantata
recordings, and in the larger-scale works, such as the B Minor
Mass and the passions. Herreweghe is no HIP conductor of Bach’s
music; he also does not have a romantic approach to the music,
with huge choirs and lush strings. His recordings can be situated
in a middle ground between the extremes, and this makes Herreweghe
one of the leading conductors of Bach’s sacred music.
The Mass in B Minor is easy to overdo from the very first notes.
If the choir is too large, too present, the sound can become
overbearing; yet a choir too small can be disconcerting. Some
HIP recordings of the Mass in B Minor, with very small choirs,
are very interesting, but most likely not to the taste of the
majority of listeners. Herreweghe is a choir-master in addition
to a conductor, and this helps make his Bach recordings stand
out: there is always an ideal balance between the choir and
the orchestra, and Herreweghe never lets the choir become too
present. The five soloists in this work are all fine singers.
The balance among the instruments, and between the soloists
and orchestra, is ideal, giving this work an intimate feel.
Herreweghe’s tempi are about average for this work, though at
times there’s something about the music that makes me want to
hear it just a tad faster.
The four short masses, BWV 23-236, are, essentially, choral
cantatas set to Latin church texts. Bach may have intended these
to be a series, and there are many stylistic similarities among
them. These little-known and rarely-recorded works do not have
the depth of the Mass in B Minor, but are excellent on their
own. Like many cantatas, they contain both choral movements
and solo arias, but they have no recitatives. As in Herreweghe’s
cantata recordings, an intimate yet expansive approach is evident;
the choral movements are very spacious, but the solo arias remain
intimate and subtle.
Finally, the Christmas Oratorio is, as we know, more
a collection of six cantatas than an actual oratorio. Many of
the various sections are parodies - adaptations of earlier works
- but together they form a fresh, unique set. Herreweghe’s total
time for this work is on the fast side compared to many recordings,
and, from the very first movement, this version has a bouncy,
bubbling sound. Again, the, choir is excellent, and the four
soloists - Schlick, Chance, Crook and Kooy - are wonderful.
The Christmas Oratorio contains some of Bach’s finest
arias, and the two-and-a-half hours of music on these two discs
Herreweghe is, as I said earlier, a proponent of a sort of “middle
way” in Bach interpretation. His meticulous attention to detail,
his mastery of the choir, and his choice of soloists make the
recordings in this set among the best in the discography. I
would put Herreweghe alongside Gardiner and Suzuki in terms
of approach; Gardiner is, perhaps, a bit more spontaneous and
Suzuki a bit more polished, but I have long enjoyed Herreweghe’s
many recordings of Bach’s sacred music. This budget box set
is a great way to discover his fine recordings, and hear some
of Bach’s most wonderful compositions.