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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)
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 28-31 March 2015, LSO St Luke’s, London. DDD
Latin text and English translation included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG722 [51:11 + 54:34]

Sir John Eliot Gardiner first recorded the B minor Mass in February 1985 for DG Archiv (415 541-2) and I bought it soon after it was issued. I owe a great deal to that recording for it was this set that truly opened my ears to Bach’s choral music and to what high-quality performances by small forces and period instruments could achieve. Prior to that I’d rather kept my distance from the music of this period, influenced, I’m sure, by the well-intentioned but somewhat heavyweight performances of works such as Messiah by choral societies in the north of England to which I’d been taken a few times in my school days. Gardiner’s exciting and moving recording of this work made me realise that, in the right hands, a choral work by Bach could make as great an impact as an incident-packed symphony by a composer such as Mahler. As well as the revelation of the light textures and period timbres Gardiner made so much of the music dance. Since then I’ve heard many fine versions of the B minor Mass but Gardiner has remained my benchmark. Now, almost exactly 30 years later, he has re-recorded the work; how do the two versions compare?

As I listened to this new recording and to its predecessor I recalled a very pertinent observation by my colleague, Simon Thompson. Writing of Gardiner’s recording of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri and comparing it with other versions Simon observed that the Gardiner recording brings with it “the thrill of discovery”. I think that comment could just as easily apply to the 1985 version of the B minor Mass. This time the discovery is different because, as Sir John points out in his notes, he and many of his musicians can now approach Bach’s masterpiece from the perspective of their immersion in his church cantatas during their Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000.

Against that background it’s been fascinating to compare and contrast the two recordings. In many respects there’s quite a degree of similarity. The performances on each recording are out of the top drawer and show not only great zeal for Bach’s music but also a profound understanding of it both in terms of the music per se and in terms of what Bach sought to communicate through it. However, there are differences between the two recordings though in drawing attention to them I’m not seeking to say that one is “better” than the other; that would be a task as futile as it would be impertinent.

One difference that strikes me concerns the recorded sound. In 1985 Gardiner and his team were working under what I presume were conventional studio conditions in the resonant acoustic of All Saints Church, Tooting, London. This time they were in LSO St Luke’s, London and an audience was present. (I understand that the recording was made in “open session” immediately after the work had been performed on tour in cities in France, Germany and Switzerland.) The DG Archiv recording is good and some listeners may prefer the more resonant acoustic. By contrast, the performers sound much closer – though not aggressively so – in the SDG recording. One clear advantage that the newcomer has, I think, is that the DG engineers set the soloists at something of a distance. I suspect that was because the 1985 soloists were, with two exceptions, members of the choir and the aim may have been to emphasise their primus inter pares status by audibly positioning them with the choir. For the 2015 recording all the soloists are members of the Monteverdi Choir but one has the impression that they have simply stepped forward to the front of the stage to sing their solos, just as might well have happened in a concert. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it was done here.

Gardiner’s respective teams of soloists are very good. Among the 2015 team I particularly enjoyed the work of soprano Hannah Morrison. She takes part in no less than three duets and in each case she partners most effectively with the other singer. Her true moment in the sun is the solo ‘Laudamus te’ and here her agile, pleasing soprano is heard to excellent effect – though I also like Nancy Argenta’s singing in 1985. I think the new version enjoys a clear advantage when it comes to the bass solo, ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. I’ve always felt that Stephen Varcoe’s voice was too light in the 1985 version; he lacked amplitude. David Shipley, by contrast, has just the right vocal presence and that’s not simply because he’s recorded more closely; he’s a clear winner.

Honours are more even in the other bass solo, ‘Et in Spiritum sanctum’ Both Richard Lloyd Morgan (1985) and Alex Ashworth (2015) do very well but Ashworth’s more forward placing means he can make the stronger impression. Wynford Evans sings the Benedictus in 1985 and does so very well. However, it’s not just the more forward placing of Nick Pritchard that leans me slightly towards him. I think Pritchard’s timbre is naturally sweeter. Incidentally, here is one of several movements where Gardiner’s view of tempo has changed; his treatment of this aria is more measured in 2015 and the music floats beautifully, Rachel Beckett’s languid flute playing a source of delight.

One significant change between the two recordings concerns the two alto arias. In 1985 Gardiner used a male alto, Michael Chance, for both solos but thirty years on he opts for female voices, a different one in each aria. Esther Brazil does a very good job in ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ but I find Chance’s more distinctive timbre brings even more to the music. That’s even more true in the Agnus Dei. Here Meg Bragle’s tone sounds rather plain in comparison to that of Michael Chance. Furthermore, on a few occasions it seemed to me that her tone hardened as she strove for expression. Ironically it’s Chance who offers the more intense experience yet his tone is more controlled and completely even.

Turning to the choral side of the work there’s one particularly interesting difference of approach. In 1985 Gardiner used a consort of voices at certain points – at the start of the five-part fugue in Kyrie I, for part of ‘Et in terra pax’ in the Gloria and, most tellingly of all, for the ‘Crucifixus’, which is sung by just four voices. In the new recording all these passages are sung by the full choir and very impressive they sound. However, I do like the consort approach, especially in the ‘Crucifixus’ where the four voices give a unique sense of intimacy – and then there’s a tremendous contrast when the full ensemble bursts in with ‘Et resurrexit’. However, Gardiner’s 2015 treatment of ‘Crucifixus’ is equally thought-provoking. This time the full choir makes everything more dramatic and weighty with jagged accents from the strings adding to the sense of public suffering that’s conveyed. There’s one other change in the Credo. In 1985 Gardiner allotted the bass passage ‘Et iterum venturus est cum gloria’ to bass soloist Stephen Varcoe, something I’ve heard done in some other performances. I can understand why since it’s a tricky little section but I love to hear it done by the bass section – provided they sing as one - and that’s what happens in the new recording, the six basses of the Monteverdi Choir singing with complete unanimity.

Throughout both performances the Monteverdi Choir is magnificent – the word “incisive” might have been coined to describe this choir. If I award the palm – just – to the 2015 vintage it’s because Gardiner makes even greater demands on his current crop of singers. I always thought the concluding ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in the Gloria was amazing as sung in 1985 but in the 2015 version the music goes off like a rocket. The tempo is appreciably faster and would defeat many ensembles. Yet the definition never wavers and the semi-quavers are all wonderfully light and precise. This is virtuoso choral singing of the highest order. In both versions the adagio section of ‘Et expecto’ has tremendous suspense – perhaps even more so in 2015 – but I’m in no doubt that though the Vivace e Allegro ending of this chorus is exhilarating in 1985 the music is given even more lift, impact and electricity in the new version.

In both recordings the singers are supported by excellent playing on the part of the English Baroque Soloists; every obbligato provides a wonderful, expressive foil to the vocal lines.

As I’ve indicated already, the 2015 recording has great impact without being aggressive; the sound is also admirably clear. The booklet notes, as usual, are by Gardiner; on this occasion the notes are extracted from his splendid book on Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. If you haven’t read the book then these notes, which are as readable as they are insightful, should whet your appetite.

If you don’t already have Gardiner’s 1985 recording of the B minor Mass then the advice is clear: this 2015 version is an exceptionally fine recording of the work and I heartily commend to all Bach collectors. If you already possess the earlier recording then the decision may not be so clear cut. The 1985 version is by no means superseded; it remains a very fine recording indeed. But there are sufficient differences between the two versions, some of which I’ve mentioned, to justify very easily having both in your collection. Gardiner’s ideas about performing the B minor Mass have evolved and his latest thoughts are an important contribution to the discography of this inexhaustible masterpiece.

John Quinn

Previous reviews:  Brian Wilson and Simon Thompson


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