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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232
Hannah Morrison (soprano); Esther Brazil (mezzo); Meg Bragle, Kate Symonds-Joy (altos); Peter Davoren, Nick Pritchard (tenors); Alex Ashworth, David Shipley (basses)
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
rec. LSO St Luke’s, London, 28-31 March 2015
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG722 [51:10 + 54:46]

Thirty years ago John Eliot Gardiner made a studio recording of the Bach’s mighty B minor mass that has, for many, come to set the standard for how Bach should sound when played on period instruments. It is one of the most widely-owned recordings of the work and has been enormously influential in its time, so interest was bound to be piqued when he decided to record it again. It’s entirely typical of Gardiner’s musicianship that he should return to this monument: he’s a living, breathing musician whose interpretations don’t stand still. So what is Mark II like?

The short answer is: the same, but different. The monumentality of the work is still there, as is Gardiner’s determination to make it flexible and lively. The first Kyrie has an impressive forward momentum, for example, its onward tread sounding serious but not an ounce over-weighty. What's impressive here, as in all the other movements, is the transparency of the inner textures. All of Bach's contrapuntal lines flow in and out of each other like the threads of an elaborate tapestry: always noticeable, individually impressive, but coming together astonishingly to provide a whole that is inexplicably bigger than the sum of its parts. Others, like John Butt or, back in the day, Joshua Rifkin, achieved this with far smaller forces, but one of the strengths of Gardiner's achievement is to attain such clarity and textural lightness with a larger orchestra and choir.

The second Kyrie is much more deliberate, and paves the way nicely for the bluff ebullience of the Gloria (a "peasant stomp" as Gardiner has called it), more earthy and a little more headlong orchestrally than it was in 1985, but very exciting, and yielding to an alluring, almost consolatory Et in terra pax. There is a wonderful sense of build to the Gratias, the trumpet line almost lending an air of angelic benediction, and the Gloria section is rounded off by the most agile, vibrant and downright exciting account of the Cum Sancto Spiritu that you're ever likely to hear. There are several sections in the recording - and this is one - where you can tell that Gardiner has "been through the trenches" (his words) with these musicians in the years since 1985, and most especially during the Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000. This has encouraged him to take more risks and push things further than he would have done before. When it happens, and the Cum Sancto Spiritu is one example, the effect is exhilarating, with blazingly clear choral lines and flashing brass punctuations that reinforce not only the beauty but also the joy of Bach's vision of faith.

Unlike the Passions there is no narrative to the B minor mass, but it is in the Credo that it comes closes to there being one (the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ), and this is, for me, the most interesting aspect of this new recording. There is an almost martial air to the beginning, before an Et in unum Dominum that sounds almost pastoral. Then the great sequence of choruses depicting Christ's earthly existence is magnificent. Et incarnatus est takes a plunge into the dark, with gently whispered strings preparing the way for the pale, frosty descending choral lines which seem perfectly to evoke the bleakness of human existence after the bliss of heaven. The Crucifixus then intensifies this even more, the violin notes sounding like stabs in the texture, while the choir's rolling of their Rs seems to pull the listener into the misery of the experience, before a well-timed pause allows Et resurrexit to burst upwards out of the silence. This reverses the downward trajectory and sets the mood fairly onto the up. Et in unum sanctam sounds just a tad more trite, moving into the doctrinal statements with which many 21st century westerners might be less comfortable, and the Confiteor, too, sounds a little formulaic (intentionally, I wonder?). However, the transition to Et exspecto is, according to Gardiner's own programme note, "the most poignantly human moment in the entire Mass", and he treats it accordingly, relishing the harmonic instability of the passage and seeing it as a mirror of Bach's own doubts and struggles. The relief of Et exspecto feels as though it has been delayed (it hasn't, of course) and the bright relief, resplendent with trumpets, is all the more welcome - and even a little sudden - when it comes. The vigorous Amen sets the seal on an exhilarating journey through the Christian story. Gardiner himself has spoken (in a Gramophone interview of November 2015) of the mass having a narrative thread, and here you can really hear what he means.

The Sanctus is steady, noble and restrained, both in tempo and mood, while Pleni sunt coeli bounds along happily and Osanna has the directness and communicativeness of the singing of a community choir. The flute line of the Benedictus is languid and extensive, as are the strings of the Agnus Dei, and the concluding Dona nobis pacem has just as much build as the Gratias, but has more weight and moment to it, the trumpet line gleaming over the top and adding not just a sense of finality but of benediction.

As in 1985, the soloists are drawn from the chorus, which is exactly the way it should be. Hannah Morrison and Kate Symonds-Joy slip in and out of each other's line beautifully in the Christe. Peter Davoren fulfils the same role very well in the Domine Deus, and Morrison's voice has an appealingly simple beauty in the Laudamus te. I loved the tone of Esther Brazil in Qui sedes, and David Shipley entirely owns the Quoniam in his bluffly authoritative way. Perhaps the finest solo contribution of all comes from Nick Pritchard, whose tenor in the Benedictus is mellifluous, heartfelt and prayerful. Meg Bragle allows the Agnus Dei to sound plangent and intense without sounding (too) funereal. The instrumental obbligati are all marvellous with particular mention to the horn, who sounds fantastic in the Quoniam, helped by marvellously mobile bassoons.

The recording was made live in front of an invited audience, who are impeccably behaved. The "live-ness" of the event is entirely in keeping with the ethos and heritage of the SDG label, but for me the acoustic of LSO St Luke's is more earthy and less perfect than the 1985 studio recording. Whether this bothers you will be a matter of taste, but I think I prefer the studied acoustical perfection that Archiv achieved in All Saints Church, Tooting. You notice it most in the brilliant D major movements, and the trumpets and drums sound just a mite less involved, less forward and less exciting in 2015, in moments like Cum Sancto Spiritu, Et resurrexit and the Sanctus.

So if you have the 1985 recording then do you need this one? While this recording is very good indeed, it’s not an essential purchase. To my ear, what’s striking is how little Gardiner’s view of the piece has changed, not how much. There are several nuances where he has clearly thought deeply and modified his approach slightly, but I doubt many listeners would notice huge changes. If you already know and love this piece, and Gardiner’s interpretation of it, then you would enjoy hearing this to see how it has developed. However, if I was to recommend a first recording of the B minor mass to a newcomer then it’s the 1985 one I would go for. That’s not just because the sound is more brilliant and exciting there, but because it stood at the threshold of a whole new, exciting strand of Bach performance that we’re still living in today, and Gardiner has been one of the most influential movers in creating that. When we eventually come to judge his legacy, I think it’s that recording that people will talk about.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)



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