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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [101:17]
Bonus tracks [14:02]:
Domine Deus & Quoniam tu solus Sanctus (Autograph score)
Sanctus & Pleni sunt coeli (1724 versions)
Bonus DVD [38:32]:
Bach’s Secret Legacy [28:11]
Kyrie eleison I (Live recording 31 January, 2015) [10:21]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Anke Vondung (alto); Daniel Johannsen (tenor); Tobias Berndt (bass); Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Freiburger Barockorchester/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. 2015, Liederhalle, Stuttgart
DVD Region code 0; Picture format: NTSC 16.9; Sound format: Digital stereo; English subtitles.
Latin text and English & German translations included
CARUS 83.315 [50:38 + 65:20 + DVD: 38:32]

This is a review of the Deluxe edition of this release. There is also a standard package of the two CDs in, I believe, a conventional CD box, which comes without the DVD (Carus 83.314). The Deluxe edition is housed in a handsome hardback book-style case and is very nicely presented with a good number of pictures, some in colour, and a very well laid-out booklet. The DVD also contains as PDF files the 1733 Dresden parts of the Kyrie and Gloria.

The relevance of the inclusion of these Dresden parts should be explained and I will try to summarise the information contained in the booklet notes as briefly as I can. As is well known, Bach assembled the B minor Mass over an extended period of time. The Sanctus and ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ originated in 1724. In 1733, in the hope of preferment, Bach presented the new Prince-Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus II with a substantial setting of the Kyrie and Gloria. In the last years of his life Bach decided, for reasons that remain unclear, to extend the 1733 music into a full setting of the Catholic Mass, borrowing from earlier works, as was his wont and incorporating the 1724 Sanctus. This great enterprise was more or less complete on his death though Bach would almost certainly have revised and refined it had he lived longer.

On his death the autograph score passed to his son, Carl Philip Emanuel. However, in the view of some scholars this is not exactly a definitive source partly because Emanuel Bach did some well-intentioned tinkering with the manuscript and partly because deterioration of both the paper and the ink caused some problems of legibility. Nonetheless, the autograph score has been the basis for most subsequent editions and performances, it seems. However, the edition of the score which Carus published in 2014, edited by Ulrich Leisinger, went back to the 1733 Dresden parts for the Kyrie and Gloria. The Carus edition is the basis for this new recording – the first, we are told, to incorporate the 1733 parts.

As I understand it from the notes, the differences between the 1733 version and the version with which we’re all familiar are not vast and are principally confined to two movements from the Gloria, namely the ‘Domine Deus’ and ‘Quoniam tu solus Sanctus’. The usual versions are included as an appendix on the second CD where the opportunity has also been taken to record the 1724 version of the Sanctus and ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. Dealing with the appendices first, the alterative that presents the most obvious differences with the familiar version is the ‘Domine Deus’ where the 1733 parts include a good number of slight but telling rhythmical elaborations – so-called ‘Lombardic’ rhythms. – where the usual version is much straighter. There are changes of detail, mainly to the vocal line, in the ‘Quoniam’. As for the Sanctus and ‘Pleni’ movements the 1724 version is scored for SSSATB choir rather than SSAATB. However, following in my Bårenreiter vocal score I couldn’t detect any changes to the music per se, though I may have missed some points of detail.

As for the performance itself, it’s a very good one and I enjoyed and admired it very much. Rademann uses a choir of 32 (12/7/6/7) while the orchestra numbers 28 players plus the organ. The playing and singing is consistently light, flexible and highly skilled. The four soloists are all highly accomplished.

I made a number of comparisons with the version that is still my favourite, thirty years after it was made, the 1985 DG Archiv recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists forces. In most cases the Rademann recording stood up extremely well in the comparisons. The instances where I retained a preference for Gardiner usually concerned tempo as we’ll see.

Kyrie I is sensibly paced by Rademann and it’s immediately obvious that one distinguishing feature of this new recording is going to be excellent clarity in both the orchestral and choral lines. Rademann uses a female alto throughout – Gardiner has a mix of male and female singers. In ‘Christe eleison’ Carolyn Sampson and Anke Vondung blend well, as they do later in ‘Et in unum Dominum’. I think Rademann is a trifle fleet of foot in Kyrie II though, oddly, when that music is reprised at ‘Dona nobis pacem’ and the tempo is, of course, the same I found it much more convincing. That said, I found Rademann’s swift pace for Kyrie II stimulating.

The opening of the Gloria is light, buoyant and festive. A little later on Carolyn Sampson gives a sparkling rendition of ‘Laudamus te’. She has a warmer, rounder tone than the admirable Nancy Argenta (for Gardiner). Argenta is placed rather further back in the aural stage than Sampson – that’s true of all the solo movements in the Gardiner recording, which generally works quite well. I really admire the quiet intense singing of the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart in ’Qui tollis’ as I do the warm, full singing of Anke Vondung in ‘Qui sedes’. In the ‘Quoniam’ we encounter Tobias Berndt for the first time. He sings this taxing aria well, negotiating the vocal line with agility. Where I think the Gardiner version scores is in the slightly greater prominence given to the obbligato horn. My goodness, Rademann rounds of the Gloria with an exhilarating, jubilant ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. This is wonderful, life-enhancing music and Rademann and his team deliver it superbly. Mind you, Gardiner, at a fractionally steadier pace, provides an even stronger adrenalin rush in this section. The articulation of the Monteverdi Choir is outstanding and their performance really sweeps the listener off his or her feet.

At the start of the Credo I appreciate the way in which Rademann gets the moving orchestral bass line articulated so nimbly. At ‘Et incarnatus est’ there’s some marvellously controlled quiet singing through which the Stuttgart choir really invokes a sense of mystery. They’re equally fine in the ‘Crucifixus’ and then ‘Et resurrexit’ comes as an explosion of joy. Tobias Berndt does very well in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’. Here Rademann’s tempo is quite a bit faster than Gardiner’s but both Berndt and the oboe d’amore player are well up to the challenge and articulate the music very cleanly. I like Rademann’s way with this aria; it flows and the music is lifted nicely. The concluding ‘Et expecto’ is terrific, the music full of joy.

Rademann’s speed for the Sanctus is significantly faster than Gardiner’s. Rademann’s performance has a splendour of its own kind but I think the swift speed robs the music of grandeur; here Gardiner is spot on. The Benedictus is sensitively sung for Rademann by Daniel Johannsen who is partnered by a wonderfully limpid flautist. Anke Vondung’s account of the Agnus Dei is excellent. Her singing is poised and expressive, the tone pleasingly warm. This is one of the occasions where Gardiner uses a male alto – Michael Chance. His timbre has a plangency which some may prefer to the sound of the female alto. For me it’s a question of swings and roundabouts: both are excellent.

That sums up the position in a nutshell. There are points I prefer in Rademann’s version and other points where I think Gardiner has the edge. Both are top-class recordings. Generally I like the slight distancing of the soloists on the Gardiner recording but overall I prefer the warmth and clarity of the new recording to the sound on Gardiner’s 30-year-old recording. I believe a new recording is due from Gardiner towards the end of this year and I await that with great interest.

I think anyone acquiring this new Carus set will find it both enjoyable and rewarding; it’s also very thorough in its approach. The performance is very fine and has been well recorded. The accompanying DVD is very interesting, not least for showing the depth of thought and intense preparation which has gone on in the background to prepare the recording. But for all the care there’s a good sense of spontaneity about the performance.

This is a fine version of Bach’s great masterpiece.

John Quinn



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