After the massive vocal statements which start the Mass in
B Minor, Bach silences the voices and starts a fugal movement
instrumentally. Eventually he brings the voices back, one by
one to join the texture. At least, that is the way the music
has always seemed to function for me. Few groups manage this,
instead the instrumental section becomes a sort of fugal ritornello
before a very definite choral entry. You can tell a lot from
the style of a performance of this mass by just listening to
the opening minutes.
On this recording, from Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium
Vocale Gent, the orchestra's role is very clearly to accompany
the chorus; once the singers come in the instruments sit in
the background. Though no details are given in the booklet,
Herreweghe is obviously using a reasonably sized chamber choir.
I happen to prefer Bach's Mass in B Minor and the passions
performed with one voice to a part. This is not so much for
any dogmatic reason, but because to my ear it sounds better
- it makes more sense.
Each generation develops new orthodoxies about performing music.
This is as true of Beethoven, Brahms and Berg as of Bach. For
most of Bach's music we have no continuous performance tradition
against which to measure things; it is pretty much open season.
Andrew Parrott, Joshua Rifkin and others have convincingly made
the case, both on recording and in print, for Bach's general
use of one voice to a part in accordance with general Lutheran
performance practice. Some people dispute the evidence and others
prefer to rely solely on their ears. Within the historically
informed practice there are at least two distinct strands -
one voice to a part and chamber choir.
The issue of the size of forces is a tricky one and is perhaps
best illustrated by a theoretical example. During Berlioz's
lifetime, the only part of Les Troyens to be performed
was the last three acts, in a much cut form. If we lacked Berlioz's
letters and writings and relied solely on the surviving musical
material, what would the standard version of Les Troyens
We have no writings from Bach giving us his theories, only the
music. We must use our ears, and sometimes they don't do what
we expect. I have to confess to finding profoundly moving the
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra's performance of Bach's St.
Matthew Passion with the choir of St. Thomas's Church and
the Tolz Boys Choir, despite it using far greater forces than
one to a part.
So what then of Philippe Herreweghe and his forces on this disc?
Herreweghe very much ploughs his own furrow; he performs using
a chamber choir and an orchestra on period instruments. Within
that the style of playing is very much his own. Both orchestra
and chorus perform to a very high standard, giving a supple
clean, musical result.
Both groups phrase in an extremely smooth manner, keeping the
line flexible and rarely allowing air between the notes. It
is this smoothness, the sense of legato, which is for me this
recording's abiding characteristic.
As I have said, we make our own orthodoxies and the principle
dictum should perhaps be 'convince me'. For me the players’
and singers’ phrasing style feels very 19th century. Stylistically,
Herreweghe gets strongly unified performances from his forces
and soloists. Not surprisingly the soloists match the characteristics
of the performance, prizing blend and line above character and
Their performances are expressive within their parameters and
very finely sung. Sopranos Dorothee Mields and Hana Blazikova
blend beautifully, alto Damien Guillon is nicely expressive
in the Agnus Dei, tenor Thomas Hobbs displays a lovely
free-floating high line in the Benedictus and bass Peter
Kooij has a wonderfully focused tone in his solos.
Soloists, in general, neither make nor break a recording of
the Mass in B minor. It is a work which gains its main character
from the contributions of the chorus and orchestra. Here I can
only repeat that the singing and playing is of an elevated technical
order, with a high surface gloss. This is a very aurally seductive
performance, with long smooth, finely sculpted phrases.
I will be returning to Andrew Parrott’s recording, because
Parrott’s whole ethos appeals. I am drawn to the balance
between voices and instruments and the way everyone phrases
in shorter tighter groups of notes. The players let more air
between the notes. Perhaps I am simply replacing one orthodoxy
with another. All we can do is listen and let our ears decide.
The set includes full texts and translations. An article puts
the mass into the context of Bach’s other sacred music
for Leipzig. There are also performer biographies.
This will undoubtedly be a popular recording. Herreweghe's style
does not try to push any boundaries. If you are looking for
a good middle of the road modern recording, then this is one
to consider. If you want one which uses the style of singing
and playing which might have happened in Bach's time, then look
away. Herreweghe has the courage of his convictions. He inspires
in his performers some superb performances which have their
own distinctive style.