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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor
Katherine Watson (sop)
Tim Mead (countertenor)
Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor)
André Morsch (bass)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. live, Philharmonie de Paris, September 2016
HARMONIA MUNDI HAF8905293.94 [52:16 + 52:47]

This is a marvellous new B Minor Mass and it is, without a doubt, the most French-sounding version of the piece to have yet come my way.

That might sound like a lazy stereotype. After all, it’s performed by that most renowned Francophile among musicians, William Christie, who has dedicated his life to rehabilitating the French Baroque and whose efforts have meant that names such as Lully, Rameau, Charpentier and Marais have been not only rescued from their specialist niche but have been given an uncontested place among the concert programmes of the Anglo-Saxons. With his ensemble Les Arts Florissants he has become one of the greatest champions of that music, so it’s hardly surprising that some of the interpretative dust of the French Baroque should rub off onto his Bach.

It’s not just a trope to describe his Bach as Gallic, however. It’s there right from the start. The opening Kyrie is the most mellifluous and honeyed I have heard since the advent of historical performance practice. The two great fugues proceed with cultured smoothness that sounds as though they have one eyebrow perpetually raised. It’s a sound of which, I suspect, Lutheran Bach would have profoundly disapproved. I rather liked it, however, and as a change from what has become the norm of period practice I found it very effective.

That’s only one example of one of the performance’s wider traits. Throughout, it has an elegance, an élan, a nonchalance, almost, that would make them seem entirely at home if performed in the court of ancien regime Versailles. The solos with their instrumental obligatti, for example, sound refined and polished in a manner that is a hundred miles away from the church and more from the realm of the theatre. There’s nothing wrong with that, though, and it’s in keeping with Christie’s vision. My favourites included Katherine Watson in the Laudamus te, with a wonderfully dusky violin, and André Morsch’s playful combat with the horn in the Quoniam. Tim Mead’s lovely countertenor is a repeated highlight, be it slotting into Watson’s soprano in the Christe or sustaining a blisterinly poignant Agnus Dei at the end.

Not only are the orchestral and instrumental playing super throughout, but the choral singing is top notch, too. That, however, will come as no surprise to those how know and love the work of Les Arts Florissants, and it’s great to hear them tackling one of the central works of the German repertoire. It’s a Teutonic world that they can’t be too practised in, but they bring something remarkably distinctive to it.

The main reason for the performance’s success, however, is Christie himself. Bringing his lifetime’s experience to the B Minor Mass must, surely, have been a labour of love rather than an expectation, and the results are wonderful. There is majesty aplenty in the Gloria, whose opening casts off the mellifluousness of the preceding Kyrie as though emerging into a new light, producing rumbustious, gloriously winning tone that brought a broad grin to my face, as did the outer bookends of the Credo. The Sanctus is taken at a rapid pace, with brilliantly detailed violin inflections to enliven the texture, and the final Dona nobis pacem is brilliantly paced.

Perhaps the highlight of the work is the Easter sequence, however, and, in particular, the Crucifixus. Here you get the unmistakeable whiff of the Opéra, because Christie slows down the pace and stresses the beat with what comes close to string (and voice) sforzandi in a way that surely mimics the nails being repeatedly battered into Christ’s suffering body. It’s this movement that will tell you whether this performance is for you. Some might find it vulgar or too overtly theatrical. I thought it wonderful, an example of the conductor using his experience in the theatre to enlighten and deepen his vision of Bach.

Choose for yourself, but I thought this the most memorable B Minor Mass to have come my way since the (entirely different) performance from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Explore it and be surprised.

Simon Thompson

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