Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [103:35]
Maria Keohane (soprano), Joanne Lunn (soprano), Alex Potter (alto), Jan Kobow (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass)
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
rec. 21-25 May 2013, Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen
Latin text and English and German translations included
CPO 777 851-2 [50:51 + 52:44]

When listening to Bach’s sacred choral music my preference is to hear it sung by a small, expert choir. A performance such as the recent recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir is, therefore, especially to my taste (review). However, I’m always willing to listen to performances of Bach that uses smaller forces, such as the fine series of recordings by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, including their account of the B minor Mass (Linn CKD 354).

Like Butt, Lars Ulrik Mortensen uses ten singers for this present recording – five concertino singers and five ripienists. He has a male alto whereas Butt – and Gardiner, too – uses a female singer. The orchestra comprises 13 string players (4/4/2/2/1), two flutes, three oboes, two bassoons, three trumpets, horn, timpani and organ. Not all the instrumentalists are involved continuously but it’s instructive to note that the players outnumber the singers because one of the issues in a performance such as this concerns the balance in the more rousing moments. Frankly, if this were a live performance I do wonder how audible the singers would be in passages such as ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, ‘Et resurrexit’, ‘Et expecto’ and at the start of the Sanctus. On this recording the engineers assist in achieving a proper balance but arguably that balance is artificial.

In those big moments to which I’ve just referred Mortensen’s singers do very well indeed but I still hanker after the larger choir that a conductor such as Gardner has at his disposal. So, for example, Mortensen and his team make the opening of the Gloria sound suitably exhilarating but the singers do seem very ‘present’ in the balance, more so than I’d like. The use of so small a group of singers does bring some dividends, chiefly clarity. The fugal writing in Kyrie I is a case in point; ‘Et expecto’ is also very exciting. At the end of the Gloria ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ features virtuosic singing; the vocal parts are articulated with great athleticism and clarity. However, Gardiner, using 35 singers, achieves greater power, as you’d expect. What you might not expect is that he achieves no less clarity than Mortensen despite the fact that he takes the music at a pace that is appreciably faster.

Mortensen is blessed with a very fine quintet of soloists. Maria Keohane and Joanne Lunn blend beautifully in the ‘Christe eleison’, offering singing that is ideally flexible. Miss Lunn is delightful and agile in ‘Laudamus te’ while Maria Keohane duets with just as much success when she’s paired with alto Alex Potter in ‘Et in unum Dominum’. Jan Kobow makes some very effective contributions. Alex Potter gives an admirable account of ‘Qui sedes’; his tone is very pleasing and he negotiates the demanding vocal line dexterously. He manages all this and is also very expressive. He’s even more eloquent in the Agnus Dei and here I have a clear preference for his voice over that of Margot Oitzinger, who sings for John Butt and even more so over Meg Bragle, Gardiner’s alto. The music suits Potter’s plangent, evenly produced tone but I also think he gets more out of the music than do his female rivals. Mortensen has the significant advantage of Peter Harvey to perform the bass arias. He’s magisterial in ‘Quoniam tu solus’ where his singing has great dignity but, if anything, he’s even better in ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’. Here he offers an elevated performance, his singing wonderfully easy and relaxed.

I’ve said earlier that there are places where I miss the amplitude of a slightly larger chorus. However, Mortensen’s small consort approach pays significant dividends at times. He achieves a wonderful intimacy in ‘Et incarnatus est’, which is sung by five voices with great intensity and expressiveness. The four-part writing of ‘Crucifixus’ is similarly delivered by one voice per part; in these pages the tight focus that such a small group can attain is compelling. After these two hushed movements the explosion of joy at ‘Et resurrexit’ makes a superb contrast, even when only ten singers are involved.

I’ve focused on the singing thus far so I should hasten to say that the playing of Concerto Copenhagen is consistently excellent. The various obbligato parts are delivered superbly – special praise is due to the violinist in ‘Laudamus te’, to the oboe d’amore player in ‘Qui sedes’ and to the flautist who plays in the Benedictus. In the celebratory movements the trio of trumpets rings out splendidly.

As I hope I’ve indicated, there’s a great deal to admire – and to ponder - in this performance. My preference remains to hear the B minor Mass sung by a group of about the size of the Monteverdi Choir but an expert small-scale performance such as this or, indeed, the John Butt recording can be just as rewarding in different ways.

The sound is very good. The engineers have achieved a clean, clear recording. CPO notes have come in for occasional criticism for the earnest and rather impenetrable nature of some of their booklet notes but Karl Aage Rasmussen’s essay about the B minor Mass is clear and informative.

I’ve enjoyed listening to this account of the B minor Mass and unless you absolutely insist on larger forces Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s excellent recording is well worth your attention.

John Quinn

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