My first acquaintance with the B minor Mass was the early 1970s recording by Karajan on DG, which I purchased on LP when newly released. Later I discovered the Klemperer version from 1967. Over recent years my tastes have changed, influenced to a large extent by the stunning mid-eighties John Eliot Gardiner Archiv production. I have now come to disavow the monumental monoliths in favour of scaled-down ‘period’ and ‘historically-informed’ readings.
In order to evoke an atmosphere of spontaneity and generate a feeling of music being created on the wing, the performance here was recorded live, with a number of patching sessions, at the 2013 Tetbury Festival.
Cohen corrals moderate-sized forces with a choir of twenty, employing four to a part, and five soloists. He uses a counter-tenor for the alto parts rather than a female alto. Whilst Arcangelo are at home with both period and modern instruments, Cohen opts for the middle ground, directing from the harpsichord, and providing a discreet and well-managed continuo part. In an interview with David Smith, he sets out his strategy: ‘… I chose to do this reading with rich sounding and majestic choral forces. Sometimes the period performance readings tend to be deliciously light and the more 'time-hallowed performances of the old school' …. stoically grand. The music contains at the same time both these aspects.’
The sedate opening of the Kyrie
allows Cohen the freedom cumulatively to build up the five-part extended fugue. The effect is magical. The Christe eleison
is eloquently sung by the two sopranos Lydia Teuscher and Ida Falk Winland.
opens in true majesty, in a radiant burst of colour, where the brass boldly ring out. Cohen sets an exhilarating pace. I love the way there is no congestion, but each line is clearly audible. In the Domine Deus,
a luminous delicacy is accomplished with the interweaving of voices and flute. The superlative singing of Lydia Teuscher and Samuel Boden is sensitively sculpted and admirably phrased. In Qui sedes ad dextram Patris,
I can perfectly understand why Cohen chose Tim Mead, his particular timbre and innate musicality are perfectly suited to this work. Neal Davies delivers a characterful and powerful Quoniam tu solus sanctus,
ably supported by horn and bassoon. The Gloria
ends with an invigorating Cum Sancto Spiritu
A delicately articulated accompaniment to the opening of the Credo
gives it a sense of forward momentum. In Et in unum Dominum
, Winland and Mead’s voices complement each other admirably. The contrast between the anguished and doleful Crucifixus
and the jubilant Et resurrexit
has never been so dramatically realized. The Et expecto resurrectionem
brings the Credo
to a thrilling close.
The Sanctus, a six-part chorus, is a spirited account, vitally accompanied by trumpets and drums, with the Osanna
potent and engaging. In the Agnus Dei
, once again, Tim Mead’s plangent timbre seems appropriate.
On the evidence, all concerned acquit themselves admirably. Tempi are well-judged. The recorded sound is first class, with the balance between soloists and orchestra ideal. The resonant, spacious and airy acoustic of St. Mary’s Church, Tetbury positively adds to the success of the mix. Detail is audible and the polyphonic strands of the score can be clearly discerned. Full Latin texts with English, French and German translations are provided. Richard Wigmore contributes scholarly annotations, which equip the listener with background and context.
Arcangelo and Cohen have several other much lauded titles on the Hyperion label which, on the strength of this set, I will no doubt investigate. There are numerous recordings of BWV 232 available, and Cohen and co are up there with my favourites – Gardiner, Suzuki, Rifkin and Herreweghe. All in all, this is a very desirable release of a performance that couldn’t be bettered.