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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B Minor
Katherine Watson (soprano)
Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor)
André Morsch (bass)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. live, Philharmonie de Paris, 2016
Booklet with texts and notes in French, English & German
HARMONIA MUNDI HAF8905293.94 [52:16 + 52:47]

William Christie recorded this late Bach masterpiece live in Paris with Les Arts Florissants “in the course of a memorable tour”, to quote the publicity blurb. I’m guessing it’s the distillation of more than one performance with additional editing to smooth continuity and exclude audience noise, which has been done admirably. With impressive balance between the orchestra, choir and soloists, and realistic perspectives, the recorded sound leaves nothing to be desired.

I can’t, however, be quite so fulsome about the performance. It’s of no surprise that Christie conducts a relatively swift B minor Mass, and one imbued with the manners and mannerisms of the French baroque. Together with the modest size of his forces, Christie’s is also a grandeur-lite performance in the contemporary style, though not as spare as the one-voice-to-a-part variety. The opening Kyrie eleison bursts forth radiantly enough, the sinfonia more courtly dance than pastoral interlude, but the Kyrie’s reappearance with its divided choral parts loses tension to be almost anticlimactic, the tenors especially sounding under-nourished. Christie then deserts the podium in favour of the keyboard to accompany the Christe eleison, as he does for the other duo and solo movements.

And it’s in those stretches where Christie is otherwise engaged that imprecisions start to niggle, and a breezy blandness sets in that, to me, feels alien to Bach’s invention. Lapses in intonation are surprisingly frequent - Katherine Watson, say, at times a little flat in Dominus Deus, though she is not alone here, Dorothée Mields also under the note in Philippe Herreweghe’s 2012 account. Generally, though, Christie’s soloists present well, with some spice added on occasion by the obbligato players, none more than hornist Anneke Scott’s spirited joust with André Morsch in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus. The theatricality of Christie’s vision is unmistakeable, and it is here perhaps that opinions will divide on the nature of the work and its appropriate setting.

Christie appears to relish the big, heraldic choruses most, relatively nodding off when the going gets plainer. He revels in the censer-swinging rhythms of the Sanctus and splendour of the Gloria, but switches to autopilot, or so it seems, come the ancillary utterances of Et in terra pax and Qui tollis peccata. On these and other occasions, if speed kills, the message is sacrificed to the momentum, with the added distraction of stressed and, at times, shaky choral ensemble. The vocal strength of Les Arts Florissants is listed as twenty one (7-3-2-4-5), and bears comparison with the Monteverdi Choir in John Eliot Gardiner’s highly regarded 1985 recording, which numbered thirty including soloists, but with greater relative weight in the lower registers. At tempi roughly comparable, and also purporting ‘authentic’ scale, Gardiner’s forces convey better balance and greater agility, with more sonorous heft where required and, as a consequence, a grander presentation. If anything, Gardiner’s realisation demonstrates the choral critical mass required for both collective and sectional impact.

I have no doubt, though, that Christie’s followers will not be disappointed by this recording, bearing as it does his trademark freshness and flair for works of this period, with the added frisson of live performance. For others, say, to whom a French or Franco-Belgian flavour appeals, Herreweghe’s third (2012) account is more consistently fine, even if at times its restraint and mellifluous phrasing smack more of Fauré than Bach.

I would leave it there, but for Christie’s contribution to the liner-notes in apparent justification of his performance or, as it were, to write his own review. Why can’t practitioners like him just let their music-making speak for itself? I do agree with his final assertion that “the B-Minor Mass is an affirmation of Christian faith but just as important, for a secular society of today, it is a powerful affirmation of humanism, the exultation of man and his achievements”, but I think we would all have reached our own conclusions on that by now.

On tempos, Christie pins his colours to the ‘Bach Revival’ mast. By all accounts, history is replete with Bach revivals, the first some fifty years after his death, but rather more significant was that initiated by Felix Mendelssohn which, together with his own oratorios, largely set the template for Bach choral performance that endured strongly late into the last century, and still resonates today, though seemingly more with listeners than practitioners. Christie refers to that which began just fifty years ago – presumably he means that started by Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but frankly, I recall the most prominent Bach revivers of the time as being Walter (now Wendy) Carlos, Jacques Loussier and Ward Swingle. Harnoncourt’s first take on the B minor Mass was indeed recorded in 1968, but before and since in the stereo era, almost in triennial procession, have been the accounts of Eugen Jochum, Hermann Scherchen, Karl Richter, Eugene Ormandy, Lorin Maazel, Otto Klemperer, Karl Munchinger, Herbert von Karajan, Neville Marriner and, again, Eugen Jochum, the last being an early, and still impressive, digital version. None of these other conducting luminaries, I suggest, exemplify the kind of revival Christie connects with, notwithstanding the then Penguin Guide noting Marriner’s “daringly fast” tempos, and the leaner, lither style of Richter challenging convention.  Almost concurrent with Jochum’s final recording was Joshua Rifkin’s one-voice-to-a-part reading, but on the assumption that Christie equivalences ‘revival’ with ‘authenticity’ and ‘scale’, the performing model he uses for this work arguably had its seminal beginning, certainly by critical and popular acclaim, with John Eliot Gardiner some thirty years ago (and reprised in 2015).

Where Christie will surely rankle with many listeners (and practitioners) is to state that a number of past and present recordings have a ‘problem’ – exaggeratedly slow tempi played and sung by an exaggeratedly large number of musicians, “as if serious and religious sentiments were synonymous with slowness.” He also dismisses the conductors concerned as “better suited” to later works, those it appears he considers more naturally glutinous. Perhaps, like me, you listen to the B minor Mass without any serious or religious sentiments, but just happen to like the interpretations of those other conductors who seem to have a ‘problem’. I can take the work in many ways, including the thrill of a Slavic growl from choirs of regimental strength.

If there is a performance issue with such a work attracting the historically-informed gaze, it’s seemingly one of reconciliation and expectation between what the work is, or might once have been, and what it has become. Christie clearly rejects the tradition of Bach performance that evolved in the wake of romanticism, and rationalises his approach through the prism of authenticity, which, it must be added, has many variants. While I have nothing against the HIP mindset, and have much regard for the results it produces, I am less impressed by the apparently moral high ground it takes, and assumption of its own rectitude. Music history is also replete with fashionable movements of this kind which ultimately become curiosities, but on this occasion none of us may live long enough to observe its destiny.

In the context of the present recording, Christie has certainly been true to his beliefs and makes his mark, I suggest, to join the cohort of interpreters represented by Gardiner and Herreweghe, as well as, in the style they pursue, others such as Frans Brüggen, Masaaki Suzuki and Christie’s own protégé, Jonathan Cohen. To more completely experience this Bach masterpiece, however, I would not be without the likes of Richter, Klemperer and Jochum. Others, I’m sure, would also plump for the minimalist Rifkin, Parrott and Butt recordings, which only bears testament that the greatness of Bach’s music can be revealed in many ways. Of Christie’s interpretation, my major concerns are its inconsistencies in execution and internal balance, and for those reasons alone is not the first version I would reach for.
Des Hutchinson

Previous review: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)



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