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A guide to Bach Mass in B minor and its best recordings

The sheer variety and craftsmanship of JS Bach’s final choral masterpiece, Mass in B minor, enthral Paul Riley as he chooses the finest recordings

Bach's Mass in B minor and its best recordings

Hiring George Bernard Shaw as a music critic for The Star in 1888, the newspaper’s editor advised him to ‘say what you like, but for God’s sake don’t tell us anything about Bach in B minor’. In truth, there’s an awful lot to tell. ‘The Great Catholic Mass’, as CPE Bach dubbed it (not quite accurately), raises countless questions yet ultimately silences them by dint of its all-conquering monumentality, the perfection of its myriad calculations, and the sheer humanity that informs every note.

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Haydn sourced a score from Hamburg; Beethoven twice requested a copy for himself – the second time with thoughts towards his Missa solemnis, whose scale and ambition owe something to Johann Sebastian’s example – and Liszt was among those present at what was probably the first complete public performance, which took place in Leipzig in 1859, over a century after Bach’s death.

When did Bach compose his Mass in B minor?

Like Monteverdi’s equally compendious Vespers of 1610, the B minor Mass started life as a sort of elevated job application. Perennially status-conscious and increasingly ground down by the machinations of Leipzig life, Bach spotted an opportunity with the death of the Elector of Saxony in 1733. Hoping at very least to obtain an honorary title with which to bolster his authority, Bach composed an elaborate ‘Missa’ (a setting of the Kyrie and Gloria) to present to the new ruler. With its weather eye on the Court’s penchant for extravagant Neapolitan-style Mass settings rich in quasi-operatic solo vocal writing, and mindful of the exceptional instrumental forces available, the new work had ‘Dresden’ written all over it. Dispatching a set of parts, Bach added a fulsome dedication commending ‘a small sample of the kind of scholarship I have attained in musique’. Whether it was performed in the Saxon capital is open to speculation and, in any event, three years would elapse before a title finally came his way. Nonetheless, emerging at the end of the decade a further four conspicuously more intimate ‘Missae’ suggest the idea had seeded itself – a bridge to that all-embracing ‘sample’ of Bach’s most exacting ‘scholarship’: the B minor Mass.

During the 1740s, Bach became increasingly obsessed with what today would be called his ‘legacy’. Works such as the Art of Fugue, the Goldberg Variations or the Musical Offering were designed to showcase, in the most comprehensive way, his mastery of counterpoint. How similarly to enshrine his achievements in the sphere of sacred music?

All too aware of changing fashions surrounding cantata poetry, he perhaps felt that the text of the Mass would remain a timeless anchor forever above the vicissitudes of popular taste. Moreover, a setting of the entirety, its scale determined by the 1733 Missa, would give huge scope for the encyclopaedic enterprise envisaged. By dusting down a Sanctus dating back to Christmas 1724 he was already well on the way, relying on the refashioning of existing material and minimal original composition to fill the admittedly considerable gaps.

The Credo’s Crucifixus, for example, revisits a cantata movement from 1714 Weimar (the earliest music to be ‘foraged’) while the re-fashioning of the Et incarnatus – a late addition – probably represents, alongside the Confiteor, the last choral music Bach ever wrote. The change of heart was to accommodate a searing (ultimately jubilant) choral triptych underscoring the centrality of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Indeed, almost looking forward to Mozart’s Requiem, and evidently touched by Bach’s recent acquaintance with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the tenderness of the Et incarnatus points up a stark contrast with the ‘stile antico’ austerity of, say, the second Kyrie fugue; the concerto-like brilliance of the Gloria’s explosive opening goes hand-in-hand with the granite plainsong cantus firmus of the Confiteor, while the skirling soprano Laudamus te glances towards the opera house. As always with Bach, variety rules supreme.

It’s a variety, though, always at the service of a rigorous theological interrogation in which artful architectural strategies make room for cunning numerological conceits. And Bach the miracle-worker fuses the disparate into a whole, overwhelming in its cumulative effect. When CPE Bach directed the Credo during a charity concert in 1786, the Hamburger Correspondent reported that it was ‘one of the most splendid musical works that has ever been heard’. Extended to the Mass in its entirety, nearly a quarter of a millennium on, ‘Amen’ to that!

The best recordings of Bach’s Mass in B minor

John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)

Monteverdi Choir

SDG SDG722

Does anyone oxygenate Bach like John Eliot Gardiner? His rhythmic vitality and precisely etched immediacy are mesmerising. Of course, not everyone likes their Bach oxygenated to the max, but his is an instantly recognisable thumbprint, and the 1985 recording with the Monteverdi Choir set the bar for B minor Masses that followed. Thirty years on, however, Gardiner reassessed his own benchmark with often startling results.

In the intervening years, what had seemed initially like a maverick sideshow had started to gain traction – bringing
with it a revelatory clarity of texture, the one-to-a-part approach advocated by American conductor and scholar Joshua Rifkin was increasingly turning mainstream. And just as Gardiner’s stance against choral society massed voices in their hundreds had once seemed radical, so David Cameron’s jibe across the despatch box to Prime Minister Tony Blair, ‘you were the future once’, might now have seemed to apply to Gardiner. His response? To pour cold water over Rifkin and co’s approach and, in his 2015 recorded rematch, to up his choral forces as if blowing a well-aimed raspberry.

Now here’s the strange thing. Without subverting his grandly conceived respect for a cornerstone of the canon, to its monumentality is, paradoxically, added a new intimacy and a lightness of touch, without sacrificing any of the old trademark ‘max factor’. Launched with the velocity of an Exocet cruise missile, the Cum Sancto Spiritu shaves over 20 seconds off the class of 1985’s sprint to
the finish. 

Yet in one respect there’s a radical concession to the times. Where once solos and duets were considered the domain of ‘star’ imports – setting arias apart, inevitably dislocating the communality of the performance as a whole – the 2015 recording for the most part draws the soloists directly from the choir as Bach would have done. It’s not all gain, perhaps. And some will prefer 1985 over 2015 or perhaps wish for a synthesis of the best from each. But, forced to come reluctantly off the fence, there are contentious decisions to be made. Throwing caution to the wind in the belief that vanilla compromises are a fudge, and with three equally recommendable (if less challenging alternatives) in reserve, it’s Gardiner’s second thoughts – flair-full, risk-taking, characteristically bold – that ultimately clinch it.

Lars Ulrik Mortensen (conductor)

CPO 7778512

With his Concerto Copenhagen forces, Lars Ulrik Mortensen embraces the one-to-a-part ethos but buttresses it with a five-voice ‘ripieno’ choir, enlarging the palette to consolidate a beautifully calibrated rapport between instrumentalists and singers. After more dramatic readings, the cool first Kyrie might seem understated, but it launches a powerfully organic view of the work, whose compelling flow rests on the over-arching unity of Mortensen’s tempo relationships. From the melting gravitas of the Et incarnatus to the cumulative grandeur of the Dona nobis pacem, small-is-beautiful Bach proves special indeed in this 2015 recording. 

Jonathan Cohen (conductor)

Hyperion CDA68051/2

Although Jonathan Cohen’s Arcangelo forces in this 2014 recording equate more closely to those of Gardiner’s 1985 version, a greater spaciousness and instrumental sensuousness create an almost ‘retro’ plush upholstery – how fruitily the bassoons chortle in the Quoniam tu solus. It’s meant as a compliment. No one better understands how Bach ‘orchestrates’ with voices as well as instruments and it’s as if Cohen distils 30 years of performing traditions into something slightly outside prevailing orthodoxies yet inclusive and cogently communicative. (Hyperion CDA68051/2)

Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

PHI LPH004

Released in 2012, the third and most recent B minor Mass from Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Ghent is the one to have. There’s a nobility, wisdom and quiet authority to it. Weight and delicacy are held in exquisite equilibrium, and the pacing, led off by a supremely unruffled Kyrie, favours the long view over any short-term attention seeking. Herreweghe is a conductor noted for his burnished, sometimes soft-grained finish; these latest Bachian reflections glow with spiritual sincerity. (PHI LPH004)

And one to avoid…

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There should be no good reason to avoid a solo line-up including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Nicolai Gedda, not to mention playing from the likes of horn player Dennis Brain. But, recorded in Vienna (the choir) and London (the arias), Herbert von Karajan’s 1952/3 account with a somewhat blowsy Vienna Singverein often wallows in a turgid legato haze, the opening Kyrie edging forwards like a sedated tortoise in half-hearted pursuit of a lettuce leaf.