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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Mass in B minor (BWV 232)
Hana Blaziková (soprano), Sophie Harmsen (mezzo), Terry Wey (alto), Eric Stoklossa (tenor), Tomás Král, Marián Krejcík (bass)
Collegium Vocale 1704, Collegium 1704/Václav Luks
rec. 6-10 January 2013, Studio Domovina, Prague, Czech Republic. DDD
ACCENT ACC24283 [51:03 + 50:23]

Not a year passes without the release of at least one new recording of Bach's Mass in B minor. The Bach Cantata website mentions eight commercial recordings since 2010, and that’s not including the present recording. The reason for its popularity is not hard to find: it’s one of the great masterpieces; some may even consider it the greatest. That said, there is every reason to question the relevance of so many new recordings. Do they really add anything essential to what is already available?
The days when this work was performed with large choirs and orchestras are long gone. Since the 1970s a new approach has developed: vocal soloists, a small choir of around 16-20 singers and a small ensemble, often with period instruments. Even when the style doesn't follow the aesthetics of historical performance practice, most interpretations show at least some of its influence. In this respect differences between recordings often lie in the detail.
Within this framework of historical performance practice a new approach has emerged. The American musicologist Joshua Rifkin states that Bach usually performed his sacred music with solo voices, only in some cases with additional singers, so-called ripienists. This view has found followers, among them Andrew Parrott, Paul McCreesh and Sigiswald Kuijken. There are also vehement opponents of this approach. Among these we find Ton Koopman and the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff. The newest recordings show that the standard which has been developed since the early days of the new practice is still embraced by most. The Czech conductor Václav Luks is no exception.
In his liner-notes he explains why he believes that the scoring he has chosen is most in line with Bach's intentions. He doesn't come up with any new arguments, and the advocates of the scoring with one voice per part - as it is usually called - won't be convinced. In the case of the Mass in B minor interpreters have to deal with a specific problem: we don't have any documentary evidence of performances in Bach’s time. There is little to go by in regard to the scoring. It is true that we know also very little about performance of Bach's cantatas, but we do at least know the times of year for which they were written and that they were meant for performance in St Thomas's in Leipzig. Even that very basic level of knowledge is denied us in the case of the B minor Mass. The first version, comprising only the Kyrie and the Gloria, dates from 1733 and was written for the court in Dresden. With this piece Bach had hoped to be honoured with the title of Hofcompositeur. It seems that Bach kept the performance practice in Dresden in mind. He was acquainted with this thanks to various people he knew, among them the lutenist Weiss and the composer Zelenka. What Bach's reason was to extend this version to the Mass in its present form is still not known for sure. It seems unlikely that it was again intended for Dresden, let alone the product of a commission from the Dresden court. If we take these factors into account there are hardly any convincing arguments in favour of either a 'choral' performance or a performance with one voice per part. It is impossible to say which comes closer to the historical truth.
The line-up for the present recording is six vocal soloists, three of whom also participate in the choral movements, a choir of 21 singers and a baroque orchestra playing period instruments. Collegium 1704 and its vocal ensemble have been involved in fine performances of works by, for instance, Jan Dismas Zelenka and Handel. I have greatly enjoyed their recordings and I had high expectations when I started to play this set. My positive impressions of choir and orchestra are confirmed: these are outstanding ensembles with great capabilities. Unfortunately I have not been convinced by this performance of the B minor Mass.
It makes sense to compare this recording with a recent interpretation by Philippe Herreweghe which I reviewed here. The latter's choir is slightly smaller, but otherwise there is little difference between these two recordings. They even share one of the soloists: Hana Blaziková is the first soprano in Luks's recording, whereas in Herreweghe's she took the part of the second soprano. There are quite some differences in tempo between the two recordings, but those are mostly not essential. The most striking differences are in the first Kyrie and in the Sanctus. Luks takes a pretty slow tempo in Kyrie I - too slow in my opinion: it just drags on and becomes too static. The Sanctus, on the other hand, is quite fast. It is impossible to say which is the 'right' tempo: Herreweghe's is alright, but I find Luks' choice interesting and musically satisfying. In general Herreweghe has the upper hand in the choral parts: the Collegium Vocale Gent has a greater transparency, the audibility of the text is better and so is the articulation, especially in those parts which are sung at high speed. Moreover, Herreweghe profits from a better recording.
The main difference is in the solo department. Herreweghe's soloists are all excellent, whereas the team which Luks has brought together is a bit of a mixed blessing. Blaziková is one of the brightest stars in the early music scene right now, and it is easy to understand why that is the case. She has a very beautiful voice, with a bright timbre and great flexibility. Her articulation and phrasing and her treatment of dynamics are outstanding and very appropriate for this kind of music. She is the main asset of this recording. However, she has no solos, only duets, and that is a problem. That goes in particular for Domine Deus where she completely overshadows the tenor Eric Stoklossa. The Christe eleison, a duet with Sophie Harmsen, is slightly damaged by the latter's incessant slight vibrato. The best duet is Et in unum Dominum: Blaziková and Terry Wey are a perfect match. Harmsen does alright in Laudamus te, but no more than that. Her interpretation is not very interesting and her vibrato is disappointing. Luks has made a happy choice with Terry Wey: he has a very nice voice and sings his part with good expression: Qui sedes is beautifully sung and the Agnus Dei is one of the highlights.
Eric Stoklossa is very disappointing in the Benedictus: it is one of the dullest performances of this piece which I have heard recently. He sounds like a newsreader and doesn't do much more than sing the notes. I can't figure out why Luks uses two different singers for the bass part. It doesn't make much difference: both are largely unsatisfying. Marián Krejcík lacks the strength and authority to perform Quoniam tu solus sanctus convincingly. He also uses more vibrato than is justifiable. Tomás Král is better in Et in Spiritum Sanctum, but hardly makes a lasting impression.
In some choral movements, for instance Kyrie I, episodes are performed with solo voices. In those cases we don't hear the soloists, but rather members of the choir. The problem is that Blaziková is one of them and that she dominates these passages. That is not her fault: the other voices are too weak and in the end it is Luks who should have corrected this. The lack of ensemble is one of the weaknesses of this recording and is mainly due to a difference in the quality of the solo voices.
The instrumental parts are played pretty well and confirm the quality of the orchestra. However, some of the obbligato parts are a little too loud - again a problem of balance. There are also some passages where I am unhappy with the treatment of dynamics.
On balance, this recording certainly has good things to offer. However, unlike the Herreweghe it has some serious weaknesses and therefore is no competition to his recording which is superior in every department.
Johan van Veen