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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Céline Scheen (soprano I); Yetzabel Arias Fernández (soprano II); Pascal Bertin (counter-tenor); Makoto Sakurada (tenor); Stephan MacLeod (bass-baritone)
La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations/Jordi Savall
rec. live, 19 July 2011, l’Abbaye de Fontfroide, Narbonne, France
DVD format PAL, Region Code 0. Sound: stereo 2.0 or surround 5.1
Latin text, English, French, German, Italian & Spanish translations included
ALIA VOX AVDVD 9896 A/D [2 DVDs: 155:00 + 51:21; 2 SACDs 50:55 + 51:20]

This set from Alia Vox must be about the most sumptuously produced presentation that has ever come my way for review. It preserves a live performance of the B minor Mass directed by Jordi Savall - his first-ever recording of a Bach vocal work, I believe. The package includes a DVD of the concert, the audio soundtrack on two hybrid SACDs and a documentary DVD entitled ‘Jordi Savall, une Messe en Si à Fontfroide’. The set comes in a handsome hardback book-style package with notes in several languages, the texts and a generous selection of still shots from the DVD of the performance.
For this performance Jordi Savall assembled a hand-picked group of 27 young singers, including the soloists. The singers represent twelve nations and the performance they gave was the culmination of intensive rehearsals. The orchestra comprises 12 wind and brass players, thirteen strings and an organo di legno for the continuo. One interesting aspect of the performance is that Savall divides his vocal forces into a choeur favori and a grand choeur. All the singers, including the soloists, come together to form the grand choeur. The choeur favori comprises the soloists and four other singers (SATB). These, as Savall explains, sing several movements in which the instrumental accompaniment is restricted to flutes, strings and violins - the ‘Qui tollis’, ‘Et incarnatus’ and the opening of the Credo - as well as the ‘Confiteor’ where the accompaniment consists solely of the bass continuo. I’ve not come across this approach before but it seems to me to work pretty well, especially at the start of the Credo where the full choir is held back until the basses sing ‘Patrem omnipotentem’, which passage then makes a stronger impact than usual. Savall says that this use of what I suppose we could call a semi-chorus follows a performance practice established by composers before Bach, such as Schutz, and I like the contrast that it affords.
The performance itself is a very fine one. All the soloists acquit themselves well. It’s interesting that, for all his adherence to period practice, Savall allows his soloists - the sopranos in particular - to warm their tone with a judicious amount of vibrato, and rightly so. The soprano II, Yetzabel Arias Fernández, has a rich, round tone, which is heard to good advantage in ‘Laudamus te’. Céline Scheen has a brighter, lighter tone which is well suited to Soprano I. Of the male soloists I particularly admired the contributions of Stephan MacLeod. He does well in both his solos, singing with clear articulation and firm tone. His is not the biggest of baritone voices but it’s highly appropriate for the scale and conception of this performance. All five soloists are stylish and should anyone fear that a ‘period’ performance means technically perfect but faceless singing should see, for example, the evident commitment that that the two sopranos bring to ‘Et in unum Dominum’.
The choir is first rate. As I’ve said, I like the use of favori and it’s interesting that, with the exception of ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, for which the four singers stand together, otherwise when the favori sing they’re dotted around the platform, positioned as individuals but singing as a unit. The grand choeur is a very flexible yet unanimous ensemble, offering spirited, fresh and lively singing. They’re conspicuously successful when Bach is in joyful mode so, for example, the opening of the Gloria is buoyant while ‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ is joyful and celebratory, the fugal passages clear and exciting. In the Credo, ‘Et resurrexit’ is an explosion of joy. During this movement there’s a tricky passage for the basses at ‘Et iterum venturus est’ which demands tremendous agility and rhythmic exactness. Some conductors, such as John Eliot Gardiner, opt to have the bass soloist sing it but I love to hear it done by the bass section, provided they are unanimous. Savall has all his basses joining in - in perfect unanimity - and it’s great to hear. The choir also does exceptionally well in the Sanctus. This was the only part of the performance where a tempo choice by Savall made my eyebrows rise. He seems very fleet here; I love the joyfulness that he imparts as a result but I feel there’s a regrettable loss of majesty.
The instrumental playing is first rate. Almost without exception the obbligati are excellent - the one exception is the corno di caccia in the ‘Quoniam’ which sounds a bit reticent but that may be a reflection on the recording rather than on the player. The flautists are delightful, especially the principal’s contribution to the Benedictus. The trio of trumpeters are positioned at the back in the centre of the choir along with the timpanist - a gentleman with a beard of which an Old Testament prophet would have been proud! The trumpets ring out splendidly at all their key moments.
Jordi Savall conducts calmly - and, it must be said his beat is not the most incisive I’ve seen - but his understanding of and immersion in the music is impossible to question. For him this is clearly a labour of love. His interpretative decisions seem to me to be logical and founded on scholarship and only once or twice was I slightly taken aback. His interpretation of Bach’s great work is fresh, thoughtful and convincing. I enjoyed and admired the performance very much indeed. There are many insights. I’m sure the swift speed for the Sanctus is one such, though I didn’t much care for it myself. Some may find his tempo for ‘Crucifixus’ surprisingly fast. I must say I was disconcerted myself at first - many conductors take it slowly and reverentially. However, this passage of the Creed depicts a violent episode and I found myself appreciating the forward momentum that Savall brings to the music at this point and the unusually jagged chords in the orchestra are highly suggestive.
The technical presentation is excellent. The camerawork is imaginative but never fussy or distracting. Incidentally, on the DVD you get the performance ‘as it happened’, including the short pauses between movements during which a soloist of instrumental player moves discreetly into a different location on the platform; understandably and rightly, those minor pauses have been eliminated on the SACDs but I like the fact that they’ve been retained for the film as it means you feel you’re watching the performance just as if you’d been in the audience. The venue is the beautiful abbey church at Fontfroide near Narbonne. The abbey dates from the 11th century and was formerly a Cistercian monastery. It is set in a remote rural location and both the buildings and the surrounding countryside are very beautiful. Happily, during the performance the director includes some lovely external shots of the building and its environs. This isn’t overdone or distracting in any way; in fact, I think the balance between these shots and those of the performers - which have priority - are well-nigh ideal. The DVD sound is very good as is that offered by the SACDs, though I listened to these as conventional CDs.
The package is completed by a second DVD that houses a substantial documentary about the preparation of the performance. This is my one disappointment. The film includes a lot of comment by Savall himself as well as several spoken contributions from singers and instrumentalists. We see quite a lot of rehearsals - orchestral as well as choral - as well as extracts from the film of the performance and yet more shots of the abbey. It’s beautifully filmed. The one snag is that the commentary and most of the interviews are in French and there are no subtitles. I found I could follow quite a bit of what was being said but I’m certain I didn’t pick up all the nuances of Savall’s discussion of the music or his approach to it, which is a great pity. Some of the participants speak in languages other than French and, maddeningly, their comments are subtitled - in French! Given that this is an international release I find the absence of subtitles baffling; a major opportunity has been missed here. Poignantly, the documentary is dedicated to the memory of Savall’s wife, the Catalan soprano, Montserrat Figueras, who died in November 2011, just a few months after this performance, after a long illness.
This lavish set contains a very fine performance of the Mass in B minor, generously provided in two formats. Despite the issue over the documentary film, it offers a very rewarding experience to all lovers of this inexhaustible masterpiece and with the added bonus that the performance takes place in the most wonderful surroundings imaginable.
John Quinn