Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in b minor, BWV232 [105:45]
Hannah Morrison (soprano), Esther Brazil (mezzo), Meg Bragle (alto), Kate Symonds-Joy (alto), Peter Davoren (tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Alex Ashworth (bass), David Shipley (bass)
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. LSO St Luke’s, London, 28-31 March 2015. DDD
Texts and translations included, with notes excerpted from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s book Music in the Castle of Heaven.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG722 [51:11 + 54:34]

Reviewed as 24/96 download from (also available in mp3 and 16-bit, all with pdf booklet, and from dealers on 2-CD set).

Hard on the heels of the splendid Linn recording of Bach’s Magnificat with the Christmas interpolations and Cantata No.63 from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort (CKD469 - Recording of the Month) comes this equally winning recording of the great b-minor Mass.  I’m trying to decide on my six Recordings of the Year and seriously thinking that there will have to be two Bach entries.

This could easily have been the shortest review that I have ever written: this is as perfect as it gets this side of what Sir John Eliot Gardiner calls Music in the Castle of Heaven, the title of his 2013 book on the music of Bach, excerpts from which are included in the booklet with the new recording.  If you have hesitated to go for one of the existing recordings of this wonderful work, fear not to launch away.

If, however, you already own JEG’s own superb earlier DG Archiv recording (4155142 or more economically on 4779984) or the award-winning version from John Butt and his Dunedin Consort on Linn (CKD354), recommendation becomes more complicated unless you have an illimitably expandable purse and the physical room or a huge external hard-drive to store several recordings of the b-minor on CD or download.  I’ve just had to upgrade my external HD capacity to a 5TB model.  It’s almost unthinkable when I recall that internal hard drives had a maximum capacity of 520MB just 20 years ago that the 24-bit download of the new b-minor takes up 1.86GB. 

I wrote about the available recordings of the b-minor Mass in an appendix to my review of Volume 2 of The Sixteen’s short Lutheran Masses: I listed there the earlier Gardiner and the Butt together with Harnoncourt (Teldec), Suzuki (BIS), Herreweghe (PHI) and Parrott (Virgin/Erato, a super-budget twofer) and I could be happy with any of these on my putative Desert Island, as I could with a more recent release from Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen on Hyperion (CDA68051/2 – Recording of the Month and DL News 2014/14).  You’ll find some other recordings listed in MWI Recommends.

The oldest of these, from Harnoncourt, is no longer available on the super-budget complete Bach USB edition but comes on a budget-price 2-CD set, Warner Teldec 2564698538: like the Parrott it sells for under £10 and either would be ideal for those with limited buying power, though I’d give my preference to the latter, with Emma Kirkby among the soloists.  The 2-CD set is the least expensive way to obtain the Parrott, with some download providers asking over £28.

30 years on from his first b-minor recording, Gardiner’s solo team has changed along with the membership of the Monteverdi Choir – one veteran from 1985 left – and English Baroque Soloists.  I’m not even going to try to compare the two, however: that would be like trying to decide which version of Shakespeare’s King Lear is the greater masterpiece when the editors of the modern Oxford text have wisely decided to print both and not try to conflate them as older editions did.  Both teams are first class and I shall be listening to both versions in future: indeed, I understand that Gardiner himself doesn’t consider the older set to have been superseded.

There is, however, one very significant point of difference between both Gardiner recordings and those of Parrott and Butt: he doesn’t subscribe any more now than he did before to the one-to-a-part theory of performance for Bach’s cantatas and masses which he describes as unproven and like listening to ‘the b-minor Madrigal’.  John Butt is equally definite that Rifkin and others have proved the case for one to a part performance.  It’s not just that my educational background has taught me to be tolerant of very different interpretations of literature and music; I can and do really enjoy hearing Bach’s music from both schools of thought. One point of contact, however, between the two schools of thought: Gardiner now draws his soloists from the chorus and the result is none the worse for that.

Perhaps the earliest section, labelled Missa in the libretto, the Lutheran Mass containing Kyrie and Gloria and essentially completed in 1733, lends itself best to the single-voice theory for occasions when it might have been envisioned as sung by Bach’s very best voices at Leipzig although, at almost an hour, it's twice as long as his other Lutheran Masses.  Whatever his intention for the rest of the work, whether for performance in Dresden or simply as something to bequeath to the future, there’s no doubt that the new SDG recordings is very convincing.  Gardiner points to sections of the Credo as containing the best music and of these I would point to Et resurrexit (CD2, track 5) as vindicating his approach.

But then I listen again to Parrott (CD2, track 6) and Butt (CD2, track 6) and I find the music sounding different but equally wonderful and I become more than ever convinced that, like Bach’s other great late masterpiece, The Art of Fugue, the music lends itself to a wide variety of treatments.

The new SDG recording sells for around £20 on CD – £17.75 on offer from Presto as I write – and $18.91/$28.31 (mp3 and 16-bit/24-bit) as a download.  You should find the Linn 2-SACD set for around £14.50 – £11.60 on offer from Presto as I write – which makes the equivalent 24-bit download from Hyperion or Linn rather expensive at £18, though the 16-bit is more economical at £10, with mp3 for £8.

Bargain hunters should find the DG Duo release of the older DG Archiv for around £11.50, with the Parrott and Harnoncourt costing less still.

I can’t give you a best buy.  In their different ways all the recordings which I have mentioned have a great deal to offer without representing the sole answer to this great work.  Perhaps they are all like the blind men examining the elephant – one describing the trunk, another the tusks, a third the legs and yet another the tail.  Each tells the truth without giving a definitive answer.  I can say, however, that if you were to force me to make just one choice the new SDG recording would be a very strong contender – perhaps the strongest of all.

Brian Wilson

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