Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [101:18]
Dorothea Mields (soprano I); Hana Blažiková (soprano II); Damien Guillon (counter-tenor);
Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass)
Collegium Vocale Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 14-17 May 2011, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem. DDD
PHI LPH004 [50:47 + 50:32]

This is the third recording of Bach’s great Missa by Philippe Herreweghe. He recorded it for Virgin Veritas in 1988 (6931972) and made a subsequent recording for Harmonia Mundi (HML590161415). Though I admire Herreweghe’s way with Bach very much and own quite a number of his recordings, for some reason I haven’t heard either of those earlier versions. The Virgin recording is also available as part of a larger box of Bach vocal music (review) and the Harmonia Mundi recording similarly migrated into a boxed set (review), though I’m unsure if it is still available in that incarnation. This latest recording has been issued on Herreweghe’s own phi label.

I’m not sure how large a choir or orchestra is used on this latest recording because the only performers to be named individually are the soloists and the conductor. That’s a pity, not least because the excellent obbligato players deserved to be credited. Herreweghe is not a disciple of the one-to-a-part school of Bach vocal performance but I’m sure from listening that neither choir nor orchestra is large. In any event, the conductor’s scrupulous ear and the skill of the musicians ensure that the sound of the performance is consistently light and airy.
Herreweghe does not choose any outlandish tempi. So, for example, both Kyrie I and II proceed at a sensible, moderate speed, the textures and part writing unfolded with great clarity. The opening of the Gloria is light and buoyant; it sounds joyful, as it should do. I very much like the speed for ‘Et in terra pax’. This is slower than the pace for the preceding movement but there’s still an excellent momentum and the fugal writing is splendidly differentiated by the choir. Even better is the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in which there’s some marvellously nimble and light-footed singing and playing: the fugue, led off by the tenors, is exhilarating though not rushed and the clarity of the singing is really delightful; one is reminded, not for the only time in this performance, how much Bach’s music is founded in the dance.
The choir is just as good in the reflective sections of the work. ‘Et incarnatus’ has suitable gravitas but also, thanks to everyone’s lightness of touch, a genuine sense of wonder. Herreweghe paces ‘Crucifixus’ most intelligently; just slowly enough to register the solemnity but not so slowly that the music becomes at all bogged down. After that ‘Et resurrexit’ is just what it should be; a sprightly dance of joy. ‘Et expecto’, festive with trumpets, is a truly celebratory affirmation. Everything the choir does is truly excellent but even so the Sanctus is rather special. Herreweghe’s tempo is, once again, adroitly chosen, and the choir, sounding relaxed yet fervent, with excellent support from the orchestra, conjures an aural vision of angels swinging censers before they launch into ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ exuberantly.
Herreweghe is very well served by his soloists. The two sopranos sing delightfully, not least when they combine in the ‘Christe eleison’, their voices blending exceptionally well. Hana Blažiková, who I can’t recall hearing before, gives great pleasure in the ‘Laudamus te’. She phrases the music, ornate decorations and all, effortlessly and very naturally. The Soprano I gets no solos in this work; all her contributions are in the form of duets and Dorothea Mields combines equally effectively with all her duet partners. She’s particularly well matched with the countertenor in ’Et in unum Dominum’. The French countertenor, Damien Guillon, who numbers Andreas Scholl among his teachers, is elegant in ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’. Later in the Agnus Dei, paced with gravitas by Herreweghe but not sluggishly, the tone is plangent and evenly produced and he sings with fine expression. I like the way Thomas Hobbs sings the Benedictus. His voice is light, clear and easy and, supported by an excellent flautist, his performance of this taxing aria is stylish and most enjoyable.
I believe that the Dutch bass Peter Kooij has featured in all three of Herreweghe’s recordings of this work. He is surely one of the finest bass or baritone exponents of Bach currently before the public and here he lives up to his reputation. He sings ’Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ with nobility, his tone firmly focused and his voice agile - the horn obbligato player is jolly impressive too. If anything he’s even better in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, negotiating the twists and turns of the vocal line with consummate ease and maintaining a seamless legato and fine line throughout.
As I hope is clear by now, all the elements of this performance - soloists, choir and orchestra - are first class. However, even such excellent performers need someone to bring it all together and to have a vision of the music. The performance is beautifully shaped by Philippe Herreweghe and I’ve chosen my words very carefully there. Everything about this reading of the B minor Mass is cultivated and refined and although the solemn movements are invested with the appropriate dignity the two overriding impressions I take from the performance are its lightness and its joyfulness. The lightness in particular is very much in line with other Bach recordings by Herreweghe that I’ve heard in the past.
I have several recordings of this inexhaustible masterpiece in my collection but up to now the 1985 recording by The Monteverdi Choir and Sir John Eliot Gardiner has reigned supreme. I think it still does - just. This new Herreweghe recording, however, has mounted the most serious challenge to date, in my experience, to Gardiner’s hegemony. I know there are those who do not warm as readily as do I to Gardiner in Bach, finding his approach perhaps too dramatic or zealous. Actually, I find that the two recordings complement each other very well; they bring out different aspects of the work. Whatever your standpoint, unless you are allergic to period-style performance of Bach then I would urge you to hear this marvellous new recording. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and I’m delighted to add it to my collection. It only remains to say that the recorded sound is excellent - clear and beautifully balanced, giving a very pleasing and natural sounding result - and that the nicely produced booklet includes a scholarly but very readable essay by the Bach expert, Christoph Woolf.
This is a splendid and important addition to the discography of this life-enhancing masterpiece.
John Quinn

A splendid and important addition to the discography of Bach’s life-enhancing masterpiece.