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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)
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 eclassical.com
(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
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
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
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
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.