Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Mass in B minor [101.18]
Dorothee Mields (soprano 1)
Hana Blazikova (soprano 2)
Damien Guillon (counter-tenor)
Thomas Hobbs (tenor)
Peter Kooij (bass)
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 14-17 May 2011, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
PHI LPH004 [50.47 + 50.32]
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 be?
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 pointing.
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.  
Robert Hugill
If you are looking for a good middle of the road modern recording then this is one to consider.